Words from the Cloud: poetry as an antidote to formlessness

A terraced house on School Board Lane in Chesterfield is an unlikely venue in which to have discovered the great English poets. But it’s exactly what happened to me; in the house where my gran and grandmother lived when I was growing up. There was no hot water, unless it was boiled on the top of the stove. No inside toilet, and for the whole of my childhood great-gran never moved from a bed that dominated the back room downstairs.

The front room was never used, except for a voyage of discovery by us children. In that front room was a piano, a proper wind-up ‘His Master’s Voice’ gramophone and a couple of dozen records to play on it. It was in the chill of that room (even the summer sun didn’t seem to penetrate the cold in there) that I discovered Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. It was a pure Victorian household somehow preserved into the 1970s. Summer of love? The sexual revolution? The 1968 student revolts? No chance.

My brother and I loved staying there. A bucket at the bottom of the bed for weeing in. Fighting over who slept on the wall side of the bed (chimney breast for warmth), ice on the inside of the windows. The terrifyingly steep stairs. But for me the great adventure was the brown paper packets tied with string at the bottom of the cupboards in the front room. I endured any amount of cold to open those packets, take out the books they contained and – oh dear, what would they be worth now if I hadn’t done it – slice open the uncut pages with a kitchen knife.

Palgrave, Dickens, Victor Hugo, the tear wrenchingly tragic Little Match Girl. A collection of classics and penny novels that introduced me to literature. But it was the poetry in the house that really stuck. Not unopened, like most of the novels, but on the shelves. Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron, Browning, Shelley. And not only the printed poetry but poetry that was read, or recited from memory. I must have been 13 or 14 before I finally gave in to teenage embarrassment and refused to join in family poetry sessions.

It was only much later that I realised how unusual those poetry recitations were and that even more unusual was the poetry writing. Verses written by members of the family for various events. It was not great poetry. Classic form, rhythm and rhyme used to express sentiment and emotion. The final example a poem written by one of my uncles in the booklet and read out at my grandmother’s funeral.

I wrote poetry myself, of course. I even sent some examples to the poetry editors of various national newspapers and always received kind and encouraging responses. I have no idea where that poetry of my late adolescence has gone. Perhaps we’ll discover it when the day comes to clear my parents’ home?

Somehow writing poetry disappeared from my life, as passionate as I have continued to be about reading it. Not a day goes by without reading a poem. Often when driving or cycling I test my memory of poems, some of which I committed to heart nearly fifty years ago. There was a stunningly good programme on Radio 4 recently in which Giles Brandreth extols the virtues, and benefits to mental health, of learning poetry by heart. It is beautiful radio.

Something strange happened to me, though, in December last year (2017). I started using a new method of prayer, that suggested by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, I wrote about it here. It’s a really simple method, the repetition of a one-syllable word. One of the unexpected results, for me, of this, was the discovery of a poetic muse. It poured out of me. At first sort of ‘anything goes’ poetry without form or structure. But I have discovered that ‘form’ works for me in most things. Daily Office, Mass, Rosary, lectio etc provide the form of my days. So I started investigating poetic form. As soon as I used form in this way the quality of the poetry changed, not in terms of good or bad, but in observation, noticing and attentiveness, mainly of the physical environment.

You will be pleased to know that I am not going to share this poetry with you. I write for the experience of writing, I want to say pleasure but think I mean satisfaction, or even just need.

Although I’ve read a lot of poetry I needed to do some research. These are some of the books that have helped me:

Actually two of the best are not on the pile, Stephen Fry’s, The Ode Less Travelled – Unlocking the Poet Within.

“I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random. It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to ‘respond’ to a poem.

For me the private act of writing poetry is songwriting, confessional, diary-keeping, speculation, problem-solving, storytelling, therapy, anger management, craftsmanship, relaxation, concentration and spiritual adventure all in one inexpensive package.”

Stephen Fry

The other excellent book is the poet Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. But any of the books in the picture are worth reading.

In a recent book that I reviewed here, a monk at Gethsemani describes writing a haiku each day as part of his spiritual practice. We have been through a chaotic stage of cultural history in which ‘form’ has been overthrown. However, religion is all form, a finger pointing to the moon. Form can be liberating and life giving. Form in poetry has given me the opportunity to find my voice, not to be expressed publicly but strengthening my public voice too.

The twentieth century may well be remembered as the era of formlessness,

Formlessness is a concept, first introduced by French writer-philosopher Georges Bataille, who argued that art should be brought ‘down in the world’ from its elevated status to its base materialism – and that this debased state should be celebrated as a tool for creativity.”

Source

Formlessness is an aesthetic of suspicion. It is the very opposite of sign, symbol and sacrament. It is the evocation of the nihilism that “nothing contains meaning.” In 2003 Martin Mosebach published his, The Heresy of Formlessness, you don’t have to agree (and I don’t) with his views on the reform of the liturgy. But I do think the sweep of his argument is compelling.

When I started using the forms of traditional poetry, I was liberated from trying to write like Geoffrey Hill. I could be myself.

Working with young people I am disturbed that everyone wants to be a star. In a formless world there is only stardom … or failure. In a world of forms observing the forms is itself success.

As Stephen Fry puts it:

“None of these adventures into technique and proficiency will necessarily turn you into a genius or even a proficient craftsman. Your view of Snow on York Minster, whether languishing in the loft or forming the basis of this year’s Christmas card doesn’t make you Turner, Constable or Monet. Your version of ‘Für Elise’ on electric piano might not threaten Alfred Brendel, your trumpet blast of ‘Basin Street Blues’ could be so far from Satchmo that it hurts and your take on ‘Lela’ may well stand as an eternal reproach to all those with ears to hear. You may not sell a single picture, be invited even once to deputise for the church organist when she goes down with shingles or have any luck at all when you try out for the local Bay City Rollers tribute band. You are neither Great Artist, sessions professional, illustrator or admired amateur.

So what? You are someone who paints a bit, scratches around on the keyboard for fun, gets a kick out of learning a tune or discovering a new way of rendering the face of your beloved in charcoal. You have another life, you have family, work and friends but this is a hobby, a pastime, FUN. Do you give up the Sunday kick-around because you’ll never be Thierry Henry? Of course not. That would be pathologically vain. We don’t stop talking about how the world might be better just because we have no chance of making it to Prime Minister. We are all politicians. We are all artists. In an open society everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birthright. It is up to us to claim it.”

***

My family’s poetry was dire, my poetry is dire. That is not the point. It is a way of living mindfully, a preparation for and an extension of prayer. Following poetic forms can be a rehearsal, a practice for following form in our spiritual lives. But, a warning. In his book on the useless life Brother Paul describes poetry and prayer as kissing cousins.

“They can do without one another and often do, but not as well. Like kissing cousins you have to keep them apart sometimes like kissing cousins, or they will get to scrapping, get in each other’s way, get to too much kissing.”

*

The beauty of form is that it can be broken. “Rules are for breaking.” said my gran on many occasions, and if there were no rules there would be no opportunity to break them, and how boring would that be?

Stephen Fry ends his book on this note of wildness, a plea for wildness in our spiritual lives too:

“It may appear contradictory of me to write a book that concentrates on metrics and form in some detail, and then argue the case for wildness. Perhaps this is the most valuable and poetically fruitful paradox of formal writing –technical perfection may be the aim, but it is out of the living and noisy struggle to escape the manacles of form that the true human voice in all its tones of love, sorrow, joy and fury most clearly emerges.

‘So free we seem, so fettered fast we are,’ says Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, before adding the now well-worn cri de coeur …

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?”

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