Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Notes on a Long Poem

The River Dart

I was at a 'live' interview with the poet Alice Oswald at last year's Aldeburgh Festival, where she was discussing her inspiration and writing methods.

For those who don't yet know her work, she has published three books of poetry and edited a recent anthology entitled The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems about the Planet. However, to my mind, her most ambitious and achieved work to date is her book-length poem 'Dart', which is about the River Dart in Devon and those who live and work along its banks or on the water itself.

During the Q & A session at the end, I asked Alice Oswald how she had managed to keep the feel or pulse of such a long poem constant during the writing of 'Dart'.

She replied that 'the poem evolved as I evolved', adding that the poem changed moods just as the river did, not fixed in one particular form or mood, but remaining fluid during the writing process.

Fascinatingly, this idea of the river enjoying thought and a sort of human personality tied in well with her later observations that the river itself was 'an eye by day, looking out, reflecting back' but by night, 'almost like a mind'.

Later Oswald had this to say about the connection between the rhythm of a poem and the poet's thought processes: 'It's hard when writing not to allow rhythm to boss you about. Writing is a sort of destructive activity; it crystallises your thoughts.'

She then described the particular writing habits she has developed which allow her to avoid that locking-in of the poem as it's being written. For problems of self-limitation Oswald advocates: 'Blind field note-taking. Just jot down whatever you're thinking, feeling. It holds a record of the place that you can have access to later.'

Now, some of you will be aware that I recently committed to a lengthy new project myself, a long poem - or possibly a sequence of poems instead, if I bottle the epic narrative - on Warwick Castle through the ages.

Hence the blog post title 'Notes on a Long Poem.' Though it could as easily read 'Notes Towards a Long Poem' or even 'A Long Poem Composed Entirely of Notes'. Because that's how it's being written. As a series of field notes - not in prose, but odd lines of poetry or little runs of lines of poetry, along with multiple squiggles and arrows - taken down at the time of visiting Warwick Castle or in the immediate aftermath of visits.

Not in conscious imitation of Oswald, of course, because it was only after I'd made several days' worth of notes that I recalled her comments at Aldeburgh, but as a rough-and-ready, stop-gap method of getting the words down, any words down, that would prevent the essence of what I wanted to realise on the page from getting away from me.

I can't say if the method will be successful, since that won't become clear for some months, perhaps even years, but certainly instead of a strong visceral reaction to the genius loci, and a vision on the air as I walked up through the portcullis gate into the inner courtyard, I have page after page of notes towards a poem, or poetic notes, or a poem in note-form.

No doubt as I begin to unravel them, invent or work out the connections, smooth over rough patches and bring them nearer to a 'finished' form, I'll discover whether this truly is the groundwork for a long poem, or merely another sequence.


david lumsden said...

The topic of how the chaos of notes are transformed into the order of a long poem is a fascinating subject Donald Hall said something about inspiration often coming near the end of the long long process of reowrk, revision, a re-vision. Dart stands out as something distinctive; Oswald's remarks are interesting and useful.


When first trying to decide on a form for this long poem, I looked at various other long poems, including Dart, to see how the narrative and the form were handled, and to take lessons from that.

I must blog my findings at some point, as I think at least a few people - and that's usually enough for me! - would be interested to see several long modern poems compared in a pro-active way, i.e. not as an academic working on a thesis, but as a practitioner unashamedly looking for ideas to steal.

Bo said...

Yes. We would!

Jane Holland said...

Your wish is my command. Now if I can only find that piece of scrap paper ...

Anonymous said...

Also interesting is A.R. Ammons' book 'Tape for the Turn of the Year': a month's worth of almost daily journal-poems typed on a thin roll of adding-machine tape, which forced the narrow margins of it. And the daily ritual making it as unpremeditated as possible. Couldn't go back and re-write either: the tape rolled ever on.

In the end, about 200 book pages.

You could do the same thing in Word these days, of course!


Jane Holland said...

Fascinating! It sounds almost like Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' writing technique - if you can call something that organic and ad hoc a technique.

Anonymous said...

Happy to lend you my copy for as long as you want: email the usual addy with postal address etc.