Poetry in the Great Unravelling
England’s cities burn, the financial system continues its inexorable slide towards the pit, taking the real economy with it, socio-economic chaos stalks the declining West, and I am reading a poem. Specifically, I am reading The Purse Seine, by Robinson Jeffers. It was written in 1938 – over seventy years ago - and, like many of Jeffers’ poems, it is a prophecy. Jeffers revelled in issuing dire warnings of future horrors from his fastness on the cliffs of California. Sometimes the resulting poems were unnecessarily bleak and self-indulgent. Sometimes they were fire-and-brimstone sermons disguised as poems (his father was a protestant minister.) Often they fascinated and revolted his countryfolk in turn, and perhaps even at the same time.
But Jeffers was a prophetic poet, and he had little interest in what others thought about what he was doing. And because he had little interest, many of his poems, over seventy years on, are more relevant than ever, while much of the work of his contemporaries is forgotten.
I cannot tell you how beautiful
the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape.
Prophecy is a strange thing, often a foolish one. This morning, I was re-reading our manifesto, Uncivilisation. I sometimes need to do this to remind myself where we came from and where we’re going. At the time it came out, just over two years ago, the manifesto – which was, I suppose, a kind of prophecy, though that wasn’t what we started out trying to write – divided opinion. Some people, including us, of course, saw it as an attempt to tell a number of truths which seemed self-evident but were rarely if ever voiced. Others saw it as hysterical doom-mongering. Some people mocked the talk of collapse and decline and – probably above all – our acceptance of the fact of our powerlessness in the face of much of it. Times were different, then. The belief that we were experiencing a temporary disruption of normal service was still widespread. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that that belief – that faith – is starting to fade away now. As a result, I feel also that the manifesto is more relevant than ever:
Increasingly, people are restless. The engineers group themselves into competing teams, but neither side seems to know what to do, and neither seems much different from the other. Around the world, discontent can be heard. The extremists are grinding their knives and moving in as the machine’s coughing and stuttering exposes the inadequacies of the political oligarchies who claimed to have everything in hand. Old gods are rearing their heads, and old answers: revolution, war, ethnic strife. Politics as we have known it totters, like the machine it was built to sustain. In its place could easily arise something more elemental, with a dark heart.
That’s from page 3. What we have seen on the streets and in the markets over the last few weeks is likely, I fear, to be just the beginning of what the next few decades will bring us, and the great unravelling continues. Not many people are laughing any more. The mockery – and the time for mockery – seems to have passed. This is a time for seriousness.
But what does seriousness lead to? Action? Inaction? Nihilism? Riots? Recently I was having an argument with an environmentalist friend of mine (these arguments never seem to stop. It’s my fault. I’m training myself not to rise to the bait, but I’m not responding well to the training.) He is involved in a campaign to industrialise the upland landscapes of Britain with enormous wind power stations in order to ’save the Earth.’ I shot him an angry, and doubtless clumsy, summary of my feelings about people who destroy wild and beautiful places in the name of ‘the environment’, but he wasn’t having any of it, and he responded with the ultimate dismissal. ‘ Nice poems’, he said, ‘but you’re not really helping.’
Earlier this year, I had a book of poetry – Kidland – published. Since I was 19 I’ve wanted to be a Proper Poet with a collection to my name, and getting to that point, though it’s taken nearly twenty years, has been enormously exciting. It’s also been a strange lesson in the value of words. I’ve published two non-fiction books in the past, and their publication was attended by a lot of activity. The wait for reviews in the newspapers, the tours of bookshops and book festivals, the launch, the following of the hopefully-increasing sales figures, the promotion, the media interviews and extracts. Bringing a book like that out is a job in itself.
Poetry is different. My publisher organised a reading for me, in London, which went well, and after that I was on my own. Poetry publishers don’t have huge marketing or publicity departments (if they have any), due to the fact that hardly anyone buys books of poetry. I’ve organised my own readings and events based on my book (and I’m always open to offers!) and they seem to have gone well. But the impact a book of poetry makes cannot be measured in sales figures, reviews or any of the other standard ways of calculating a book’s ’success.’
This is because poetry is difficult. It is – or should be – refined thought, refined experience, refined spirit, refined writing; boiled down to the bare minimum, the least and the most of what words can do. Poetry takes work, and it takes time, and work and time are both things we are unprepared to commit much of in our current culture. Recently, when I interviewed the (now late) poet Glyn Hughes, he told me of how, just a few decades back, poets like him used to sell books in their thousands. These days we might sell a few hundred and be considered a success. What happened? I don’t know. What I do know is that poetry still matters.
I would be happy as a minor poet.
The ballads of my ancestors come to me in dreams.
Duty to them a girdle or a burrowing root,
mine only to write them down.
In an essay in our new Dark Mountain anthology, entitled ‘Poetry first, engineering second’, Wilfried Hou Je Bek quotes the American poet Jerome Rothenberg on the central error of the progressive narrative – which includes the eco-progressive narrative promulgated by my turbine-shilling friends – in attempting to measure what is done or not done, what is action or inaction, what is worthwhile and what is not:
Measure everything by the Titan rocket and the transistor radio, and the world is full of primitive people. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) and it becomes apparent what all those people have been doing all those years with all that time on their hands.
To me, this is the worldview, and perhaps the purpose, of poetry. This is what it means: to counter the progressive narrative with all its fixations on expansion and control, on windfarms and transistor radios and electric cars and superstores and growth and measurement by results. To have time on our hands to sink into other ways of seeing. Poetry is the still point, the pole around which the chaos runs and circles, and the duty of the poet is to remain still, to watch, to report back in language which distills the essence of the movements all around her.
Of course, this is the kind of thing you say only after you’ve written the poems. Only after I’d brought Kidland together as a collection did I begin to see not only its human influences – Jeffers, for one, but various Thomases, too, and Merwin and Lawrence and Wordsworth and Hughes, and I could go on but won’t – but what I was trying to do with it. If you write a poem with a purpose in mind, it’s usually dreadful, but it’s always interesting to see what your purpose turns out to be, after the fact. Nothing in poetry is an accident.
Here you are, you sit between two worlds,
you are an animal.
The Earth is exposed to you as rock
beneath a spring.
You see more than you speak
because that is how it is done.
The purpose of the Dark Mountain manifesto was clear enough: we talked about fostering a new, ‘uncivilised’ writing, which saw the human, and the human world, from the outside rather than from within. Kidland, it turns out, does – or tries to do – exactly that. This poetry collection, in other words, is my first real act of uncivilised writing – my first attempt to do it, rather than to talk about it. At the readings I’ve done for it so far, I get the impression that, at least in parts, my attempt has succeeded.
i cannot speak to the whale
and the porpoise will not listen
i have mined and quarried the seas
but there are cultures in the depths that do not need me
Of course, whether a poem ever really ’succeeds’, and what ’success’ means is a question for someone else to answer. John Berryman made his views on that matter clear to W. S. Merwin in the 1960s, and Merwin later transmuted them into a poem which every poet should read. Its last lines are:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Me, I don’t have to be sure of anything much, other than my need to try and speak in my poetry from a viewpoint that is as uncommon in this culture as the landscapes and beings it comes from, and to see where that takes me. That, I suppose, is the aim of my work. While a poem itself should perhaps not have a purpose, I do think that a poet should have an aim. After all, the engineers do, and someone has to stand in their way, however green they think they’re being as they build on.
I have flown
through tears of smoke, through waterfalls
of forest dust and home.
If you’re coming to the Dark Mountain Festival next week, you can hear me talking more about this in a joint reading event with three other poets whose work also leaps two-footed into that green void: Em Strang, Adrienne Odasso and Susan Richardson. In the meantime, if you want to read the poems I’ve extracted the above snippets from, you can buy my book and keep me in oatcakes for another few days. You can be assured that I’d appreciate it
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