Starting to Write
As a lad in Ainsdale, Lancashire it never crossed my mind to be a writer. I knew what writers were of course. I’d seen them at the Plaza cinema. They were posh and brave in the war: drove M.G.’s and married Valerie Hobson. (Kate Winslet to you).
At school I was fairly hopeless. I once got 6% for Algebra. 6%! I mean, they give you 5% just for spelling your name right! I was good at English though and I loved using the big words I’d read in the dictionary. “Excuse me sir how d’you spell lycanthropy? “
I left school at sixteen and went to sea but eventually ended up teaching. At my first school I couldn’t find any published poems that were about the ordinary life I’d led. So I started writing my own. They all sounded like creative writing exercises. (See my poem “Miss Creedle Teaches Creative Writing”.) But the children were kind. They looked out of the window, yawned and picked their noses but nobody lobbed any sprouts at me.
Then one day, from somewhere the voice of a Lancashire schoolboy started speaking in my head. He was me and somehow not me. He was telling me about what life was like in the ordinary, rough and ready school he went to. Before it went away I grabbed a pencil, wrote it down and called it “Our School”. Gradually I had enough for a book and 17 years later “Salford Road” got published.
Memory, Recognition and Dykes against Time
Gareth Owen writes about being a writer
Whatever else a poet may do, if he can't 'sing' he can never really be a poet. I aspire to that. So for me it begins with the words; the way
they yearn towards the condition of music and yet in the hands of the best are paradoxically concrete and specific. I love what Arthur Miller said about Ibsen. (Here, as elsewhere, I quote but loosely and from memory.) He said, that where Ibsen is most concerned with feeling he is most writing about things. In other words, put your trust in nouns and keep a sceptical eye on the adjectives. Feeling is incapable of direct commumcation. It arises in the leap the reader's mind is compelled to make in connecting the disparate things named. But the sounds and the rhythms have also to work their passage.
It's the vowels that carry the emotional weight of the poem. You can play tunes on a vowel, Sometimes a poem will have a vowel sound as its starting point and the manner in which it gives primitive expression to a state of mind. A sigh of regret might emerge as a decaying 'ah' sound. Then the sound goes looking for words to inhabit, in order to make sense of itself.
Now and then I'm fortunate to have a whole verse enter my head unbidden. I'd decided to call my book "Salford Road" long before the poem existed, Sitting in the garden I heard this verse in my head:
My friends walked out one Summer day,
Walked singing down the lane,
My friends walked into a wood called Time
And never came out again.
I wish it would happen more often. The hard part is finding an intellectual context for the next ten verses. That's where the craft comes in and sometimes it's as close to drudgery as makes no difference. It's all very well for Keats to talk of poetry coming like leaves to the trees but I sympathise more with Jonson's edict that poets are made as well as born,
As far as I'm able I try to follow the traditional rules of prosody. I find the inherent discipline liberating, The compulsion of rhyme can often lead to surprising associations that mere logic would never have eyes for. Sometimes though, the rigours can drive one almost to suicide. I recall nailing myself to an almost unsustainable rhyme and rhythm pat tern which in the first verse had come easily.
The rest was will power and drudgery. I can understand why Pope cried out for someone to take him from the labour of translating Homer and hang him from a convenient tree.
I essay free verse now and then of course. Though such poems will often start in strict rhyme and metre and only later discover that they express themselves more vigorously in a freer form. Quite often they're monologues of a sort and the break-through comes when I discover the vocabulary and speech rhythms of the persona I have temporarily occupied in order to voice the poem. There's an element of imitation and theatricality about such poems that I've always enjoyed. That's why I like Shakespeare, Webster, Donne and of course Browning.
All definitions of poetry are partial but I think Auden was as close as anybody when he defined it as being 'memorable conversation', I've always taken pleasure in hearing on the inner ear the rhythms of everyday speech somehow contending happily with the strictures of verse.
I am two fools, I know
For loving and for saying so
In whining Poetry
(John Donne, 'The Triple Fool)
I must mention finally how important to me is the idea of an audience. In my heart I don't really believe that anybody writes for him self. I write so that things won't pass away entirely. I'm shoring up a dyke against Time. Always too in the further recesses of my mind I have a hope that there's another soul out there who will say, 'That's how it is... or was... for me.' Writing has much more to do with memory and recognition than with mere invention.