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Reflections on Ground
Vol. 1 No. 1 April 2005
Reflections on ground 1 My feeling for ‘ground’ as matter: soil, earth, stones and growing things, as the life of place, must have been laid down from the start. Indeed, I think of it as familial, ancestral, a feeling deriving from people who worked on the land as labourers and gardeners mainly in the south of England. In these fundamental things, however, original feeling becomes hard to distinguish from later imagination, from the stories one tells oneself or is told; so, too, my own memories as a child became linked with my parents’ memories of their childhoods, thus reinforcing my sense of belonging to a particular area over a period running back into the past, before I was born. The conventional word for the resulting sense of belonging is roots: a word I would come to distrust because it converts a complicated history into a natural process. But this would come later. As far as I am aware, my original feeling for poetry was closely associated with ‘ground’ as the elemental life of place.
The poems my mother loved, and which she read to me when I was a boy, came mainly from Laureata: A Book of Poetry for the Young, which she had studied in school at the time of the First World War. This anthology, not unlike Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury, was particularly rich in lyrical and narrative poems, and among my favourites were ‘Horatius’, ‘After Blenheim’, ‘The Deserted Village’, ‘The Forsaken Merman’, and poems by Tennyson, such as ‘Break, Break, Break’ and ‘The Brook’. After years during which the word ‘ground’ has undergone complex changes of meaning in my mind, I was startled when I came recently upon another favourite poem from Laureata, Pope’s ‘Ode on Solitude’, in which the word probably first resonated for me:
Happy the man whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Startled or not, it’s salutary to be reminded of the simple things from which one’s poetry springs: from sensations such as the feel of earth underfoot, or soil crumbled in the hand, or the experience of simply being in a place that one loves; from a liking for particular words.
Many of the Victorian and earlier poems in Laureata conveyed a sense of place. Thus, for me, Tennyson was associated with West Wight, which we could see across the Solent, Thomas Hardy (though not in Laureata) with Dorset, as was William Barnes. Richard Jefferies, whose essays, when I read them first at about the age of twelve, opened my eyes to nature, was identified with Wiltshire, ancestral ground, and country which I knew from visits. Some years later I read Edward Thomas, who was closely associated with my home county of Hampshire. From the beginning, then, my feeling for poetry was bound up with a feeling for the land. This is probably why I experienced no discontinuity – at least, no radical break – between love of Laureata poems and the modernist poetry I began to read when I was about 18 (some, earlier). There are, of course, enormous formal and linguistic differences between, say, Tennyson’s lyrics and the imagism and fragmentation of Eliot and Pound. Yet both Victorians and Modernists ground their poetry in a feeling for the elements – for soil and sea and winds – and for elemental places. For me, then, though I know why Modernists felt the need to break with their immediate predecessors (a break which, in some respects, seems less radical now than it did at the time) the transition from traditional English lyricism to The Waste Land and The Cantos wasn’t a difficult one.
2 Revolutions in one’s idea of poetry may be, instead of complete transformations, rather a redirection to original sources. To some extent, this, I believe, is what happened to my thinking about ‘ground’ in the years following my move to Wales in 1965. Initially, I was drawn to London as the ‘centre’ where I hoped, as a young poet, to publish and make a name. At the same time, I had a vague idea of poetry as self-expression, or the expression of states of mind. All this began to change when I encountered modern Welsh poetry in translation, especially poems by Gwenallt and Waldo Williams, which spoke out of the crisis of their culture in the twentieth century, and gave voice to a body of shared experience. More influential was the writing of David Jones, which I began to read in 1970.
The idea I developed at this time was that poetry should be written not about but from place. This, at any rate, was what I aspired to do. In some respects, as I realized later, it was a nostalgic desire, arising from the fact that, living in Wales, I could see the place I had come from, where I felt I belonged. I identified closely with David Jones’s words in the Preface to The Anathemata: ‘one is trying to make a shape out of the very things of which one is oneself made’.1 This was a definition of poetry which gave priority to the poet’s matter, to all that shaped him in terms of culture, history, family and ancestry. At the same time, it defined poetry by implication as essentially exploratory, since one has to discover the things of which one is made before one can make a shape of them.; indeed poetic ‘shaping’ is an exploratory act. Now, my idea of ‘ground’ became the whole ‘matter’ of place: the geological and historical shaping forces, the ecology, and the personal dimension, drawing on family and ancestry, as well as personal experience.
John Matthias wrote perceptively of my work at this time, in for example Solent Shore (1978), that I would like my poetry to be of use in the place: ‘as essential as the necessities unladen in the harbor’.2 One effect of this thinking was that I conceived my work in terms of sequences, and as working with and through what I now consciously thought of as ‘ground’. I perceived a continuity between natural and nonhuman constituents of place - geological processes and materials such as chalk and flint, shingle and clay - and historical, human experience; I made formal connections between poetry and place, which I described in an essay included in my book Master of the Leaping Figures (1987): ‘Entering a place that is new to us, or seeing a familiar place anew, we move from part to part, simultaneously perceiving individual persons and things and discovering their relationships, so that, with time, place reveals itself as particular identities belonging to a network, which continually extends with our perception, and beyond it. And by this process we find ourselves, not as observers only, but as inhabitants, citizens, neighbours, and locate ourselves in a space dense with meanings’.3 The connection I was seeking was similar to that which I found in the Welsh poets. It defined a poetic function, a way of speaking beyond the isolated self, as a voice of community.
3 The thing I was not initially prepared to recognize was the extent to which my perception of home ground depended upon distance; that if I could see where I had come from, it was because I was no longer living there. But seeing had long been one of my preoccupations. It originated in my reading of Jefferies, who opened my eyes to the life in nature, vibrant in every ditch and hedge. It owed a great deal to the fact that my father was a landscape painter, although it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I really looked at his paintings, and appreciated his sense of colour, of dynamic movement, of water and light, shadow and cloud. And when I saw these things, I knew them in myself too, in my perception of the world. His work helped me to make a personal connection between the tradition of English landscape painting and the literary tradition that descends from Wordsworth through Ruskin and a Victorian ‘poet-naturalist’ such as Jefferies to Hardy and Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney: a tradition for which accurate observation is integral to moral and visionary ‘seeing’.
It was as I began to recognise factors which complicate the ‘art of seeing’ that I came – following an earlier admiration for William Carlos Williams - to read the American Objectivists, especially George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. In one sense, there was no problem – far from it: Oppen confirmed my feeling for imagism as a root of modern poetry, and as a technique for transcending momentary perception, and for building sequences and long poems. The ‘mosaic’ form which I adopted in some poems owed something to the example of Reznikoff’s Jerusalem the Golden. The Objectivists’ close attention to the things of a ‘common’ world reinforced what I had long been drawnto in the tradition of Lyrical Ballads, thus enhancing my sense of connection between the Wordsworth-Jefferies line of English vision and a key element in American modernism.But it was also Oppen who wrote: ‘“Whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance/from Them, the people, does not also increase”’/I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place’.4 Place itself, in this sense, becomes distance from others, instead of a space of shared meanings. Lost in this distance, the poet could become a solipsist leading what Martin Buber calls ‘the life of monologue’. Looking back, I can see that this was the risk I became most aware of after completing some of my most ‘rooted’ poems.
It was in Buber that I discovered new possibilities of relationship: ‘We do not find meaning lying in things nor do we put it into things, but between us and things it can happen’.5 I had struggled as a poet to write a convincing experiential poetry, using the first-person singular. Indeed, in the first sustained work that seemed to me authentically mine I had adopted as a persona the chalk giant of Cerne Abbas, which had enabled me to explore relations between self and other, male and female, and life-engendering and destructive forces. I should have learnt from this that poetry for me is essentially exploratory – that I have no real interest in recreating completed experiences, but only in using the known to reach towards the unknown, and to find in the familiar the strange, the other.
Emily Dickinson said it perfectly: ‘Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted’.6 The perfection of the saying inheres in its mystery, which different readers will understand differently according to their needs. As I understand it, it refers to the artist – the poet – as one who works at the limits of the sayable; or rather as a maker, one who shapes objects which are open to mystery. We can’t be certain that spirit will animate our poems; we can only make them so that they are open to spirit, not closed on ego-experience.
It was Lee Grandjean, the sculptor and painter, who said to me: ‘We must break our taste’. We had met in 1981 at Winchester School of Art, where we both held residencies. It was in the following decade, however, that we began to work together collaboratively, producing a book, Their Silence a Language, consisting of poems and prose, and drawings and photographic images of sculptures, and Groundwork, an exhibition of sculptures and poems. Meeting Lee and seeing him at work renewed my original feeling for the sculptural. In Welsh Journal, in an entry made in 1972, I had written: ‘Last night, looking again at pictures of Henry Moore’s sculptures, I realised once more that my instinctive feeling for things and for landscapes is closer to the feeling of sculptors like Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and of certain painters, than to that of most writers’.7 I was thinking of earliest impressions: of the rhythms and shapes of downland, of scalloped ploughland, of sea-walls, shingle beaches, and mud-flats. I was aware, too, of the textures of my father’s oil paintings. It was important that Lee and I felt similar needs as image-makers yet were practicing different arts, so that our differences were at least as imaginatively stimulating as our similarities.
Working with Lee helped to confirm my sense of ground as both material and shaping force. But also, when he spoke of breaking our taste, challenging us to ‘make it new’, the idea harmonized with my conviction that poetry is both image-making and image-breaking. That is to say, the poet needs to be iconoclastic towards his own work, knowing that every image is provisional, and reality larger, stranger, and more mysterious than any word or image. This is not a philosophical position; it is a fundamental instinct springing ultimately from my earliest sense of what I would learn to call particularity and personhood; from life as Henry Vaughan apprehends it: ‘A quickness which my God hathkissed’.8 5 A poet risks becoming fixed in his or her ideas. No doubt this was the case with me when preoccupied by ‘poetry of place’ and a concept of ‘belonging’. One day a friend said to me: ‘you have never accepted being a stranger’, and I knew she spoke the truth. Or rather, it had been the truth, and it had determined my earlier thinking. For some time now, however, I had known what it means to be a stranger. The reference wasn’t especially to any form of ‘alienation’. It had more to do with recognition of ‘not knowing’; of the perception that, as Philip Wheelwright says: ‘The existential structure of human life is radically, irreducibly liminal’.9 In my critical writing I had become increasingly concerned with the relation between poetry and the sacred, continuing work begun on David Jones in the 70s but also focusing upon Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne, and modern and contemporary poets who attempt to express a religious sensibility in a language imbued with secular values. I had come to think of ground in a religious sense; but what I was most aware of was its instability.
There was a sense in which this took me back to the beginning, but with a new awareness of the question of underlying reality. In my experience the actual shore near which I had been brought up was, from my first sight of it, dangerously and excitingly unstable – the path along the sea-wall eroded, the detritus of war, which might have been booby-trapped, washed up and mixed with natural flotsam. The world beyond the shore extended the instability, with razed buildings, bomb craters, layers upon layers of the past exposed. All this influenced my sense of language, and therefore of identity. I’d always felt a disparity between the definition of names and the mystery of identity – the self-feeling that descends into being. In recent work, especially in ‘Seven Songs’, I’ve explored this instability, which could also be called a sense of wonder at the strangeness of existence, which precedes all concepts and categories, but also continues behind them, and as a kind of under-life in words.
Writing of ‘Seven Songs’ in Adamah I described them as characterized by ‘fluidity’. ‘The voice of these is conceived as being female, not in the form of a woman persona, but as a kind of androgynous space, in which I attempt to transcend the limitations of both male and female egos’.10 I had reached this position, not by rejecting the materiality of ground, but (as I wrote in the same Note) through a greater awareness of ‘groundlessness’. This has its negative aspects, but, positively, ‘it is associated with possibility, with loss of ego boundaries in an enlarged sense of being, and with imaginative energy that both makes and breaks images, in an attempt to intimate the power beyond images, on which all life depends’.11
In these reflections on ‘ground’ I have described some of the things that I think I can see when I consider my present writing, and look back over my work as a poet during some forty years. One thing is certain, however. As I wrote in ‘At the Edge’, the afterword to Their Silence a Language: ‘I think of poetry as an art of seeing, an art by which, in my blindness, I learn to see’.12
1 Song of the Earth
Bring or do not bring your mind’s distress.
The seas it foundered in
Are none of mine.
My words are flint, cold to your touch.
They tell I am
What you become.
No tree bore the branch
From which your sick thoughts spin.
There is no vertigo in falling leaves.
Along brain’s empty dancing-floor
My small blades creep.
The grass’s flood-tide bears you home.
2 At the Edge You will haunt the edges
Becoming more shadowy the more
This world streams past.
Now there is nothing but grassblade
Running into grassblade,
Each a separate wave where the colours flux
Orange into brown. The field is going out
With the autumn tide,
And where you were there is now
Only a cry.
3 The Elements Even a poor eye
Can see clear through the globe
To its Antipodes. All, all,
Like a frail door banging in the wind,
A leaky raft through which the sea springs,
Cannot keep out the other elements.
With faculties so weak
You can reach out to touch the other side of death.
of the bear waking in the cave,
pray for us, Dafydd.
David the Waterman,
pray for us.
fromSeven Songs Groundless she walks
Her footstep strikes
the dusty track.
on ripening wheat creates
a shimmer in which the gorged pigeon
flaps away losing shape.
In dark places, in their own spheres,
minute creatures webbed in moisture
vibrate at her burdened tread.
And she feels down through cracked earth,
knowing something about them, sensing
the rhythms by which they live.
And what, she thinks, are their constellations,
what gods burn in their heavens?
Do they too know a Cassiopeia who holds up her arms?
Are they companioned, or unsupported
except by physical law,
sheer materiality, lumpen as flints
which will indifferently turn my ankle
or break a plough?
was the mark of the day when she woke.
She has been at the edge
since first light crazed mirror and window glass,
froze the lightning of the garden tree
against the toppling tidal wave of earth.
She is a woman carrying a child who flinches
at the momentary thought she is a man
who dreams herself to be a woman,
and who now is walking beside a harvest field,
kicking up the dust,
What is possible? she insists, feeling
again the movement under her heart.
Who was it said
‘the march of time’?
Months weeks days hours minutes seconds
hard boots striking sparks from flint
regiments tramping from the cave-mouth
down the years.
And must it be so, faces
with the same blind look ever
appearing, disappearing – one likeness
dominant as Jupiter in the night-sky?
An obstruction in the flow: blackness
shot through with flashes of light,
her mind itself the sky
in which a woman lifts up her hands
over heavy-headed wheat,
the whole sea of the field whispering.
But she may not dissolve;
she must absorb turbulence;
the desire within to be other
is the pressure she must bear.
But must the story repeat itself,
the flame be kindled to burn as one
with the whole fire that consumes and dies?
Let me take a seed of thought
and find for it a cryptic niche,
some damp place under soil or under bark,
a home of bacteria, of creatures
that live in water, and grow there
a being that moves to another rhythm …
But now her mind is an ice-berg
in a polar sea, mountainous dark
moving under her, bearing her along.
And instantly the image fractures,
What, then, is possible? she cries
silently, as groundless her footstep
strikes the dusty track.
The child I carry
will crawl into the world.
What ground will he stand on?
What humus, or piece of debris
hurtling from the supernova,
the giant star that once was man?
from From Debris
foxglove-red at base,
creamy shell-like petals
scatter your images on the ground
where the tree springs,
where it moves in you
and the only word
you feel in your mouth
Observation (looking at the magnolia) can become an idol.
Why should seeing be painful, unless one is possessive, wanting to see all?
It is feeling with, feeling into, that respects the other.
Distance makes this possible. There is no other way of coming close.
For a Woman Who Said She Could Fall in Love with a Boat
for Mieke on her fiftieth birthday What I wish you is not a sieve
or a chugging tub
or a hulk half sunk in the mud
with ribs that clutch at the sky,
but a sound bottom,
good timbers throughout
and oceans ahead to plunge in.
Or a canoe, maybe, or a kayak,
for mountain lakes and rivers,
skin or bark rider of rapids
and a wise spirit to guide you –
sickle-gleam glimpsed between cedars,
new moon drifter on dark water
Or a rowboat,
crawling in creeks – where you anchor,
and lie back, head pillowed,
and dream, rocking, rocking,
watching the sailing sky.
Or else a thoroughbred yacht,
sail taut as a fin or billowing,
gull-white hull with lines
sleek as a great northern diver –
a yacht which never dives, but cuts through waves
over the crab’s den and the lobster’s lair,
over stones and mud where the weeds are,
under, down under, while it races over
and ocean is its pasture.
Better for you a boat like a dolphin,
a mythical craft,
part mammal and part bird.
Nose up, nose down, and the back curves
out of the water, awash and shining.
What are you then but the sea
and the sea’s daughter,
waves riding waves
and spume in your hair?
Best of all though I wish you
one of your native boats.
Not a tjalk with a hold
full of vegetables and household stuff,
or the floating barn of a flat-bottomed aak,
smelling of grain and stone to mend roads.
No grandfather barge which you would care for
like a beloved elder, retired
from the work of the world.
Rather an antique sailing boat
with brass portholes and polished timbers,
stately and playful and worthy
of every weather,
canal-wise and ocean-knowing,
a boat with an engine that never fails,
and room below when you carry a fellow voyager,
and a red sail.
Acknowledgments The poems have been drawn from the following collections:
‘Earth Poems’ from The Elements, Christopher Davies, 1972; ‘From a Pill-Box on the Solent’ and ‘Gull on a Post’ from Solent Shore, Carcanet, 1978; ‘Curlew’ from Englishman’s Road, Carcanet, 1980; ‘At Ovington’ from Master of the Leaping Figures, Enitharmon, 1987; ‘Steps’ and ‘Company’ from Their Silence a Language, Enitharmon,1993; ‘Westerbork’, ‘Dreaming of Europe: a collage’, ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘Written in Clay’ from Our Lady of Europe, Enitharmon, 1997; ‘That trees are men walking’, ‘Groundless she walks’, ‘Magnolia’, ‘For Quickness’, ‘Hare’ and ‘For a Woman Who Said She Could Fall in Love with a Boat’ from Adamah, Enitharmon, 2002.
1 The Anathemata (London: Faber, 1952), 10.
2 Reading Old Friends (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 84.
3 ‘A Poem like a Place’, Master of the Leaping Figures (Petersfield: Enitharmon Press, 1987), 76.
4 ‘Of Being Numerous’, George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 167.
5 Between Man and Man (London: Fontana Library edition, 1961), 56.
6 Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 236.
7 Welsh Journal (Bridgend: Seren, 2001), 64.
8 ‘Quickness’, Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems, ed. Alan Rudrum (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 307.
9 The Burning Fountain (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1968), 18-19.
10 Adamah (London: Enitharmon, 2002), 107.
11 Ibid., 107.
12 Jeremy Hooker and Lee Grandjean, Their Silence a Language (London: Enitharmon, 1993), 75.