POETRY AND MEMORY
On the publication of my first collection ANCIENT LIGHTS a few years back, I was interviewed online by a friendly editor (they’re out there!) for an article about poetry and memory.
Many of your poems in ANCIENT LIGHTS are concerned with time and memory. How do you use memory as a muse? When you revisit a memory in a poem, what does it feel like to you?
I never seek out memory consciously as some kind of goad to inspiration. I can only write in response to a jolt from inside or out and long periods may pass between such events. Then a small linkage of words or a complete line will simply appear, often enough in the midst of a sequence of completely unconnected thinking. Many poems begin when I’m driving on my own. The pairing of concentrated attention behind the wheel and the freewheeling bundles of random thoughts stimulated by music that might be playing or by the passing scene seems to provide particularly fertile conditions for the start of a poem. It’s within this kind of creative context that memory might interpose itself at some point. So there’s no conscious attempt to site an emergent poem in some recollection of the past: if it’s going to happen it will simply happen. But when it does the greater likelihood is that a first draft of the poem will be completed swiftly and its emergence will carry with it an immediate and commanding emotional charge.
There’s an example of this in the writing of In The Daubigny Chapel. I was driving from Hertfordshire to Hampshire, a journey of about two-and-a-half hours along linked motorways alongside which the changing topography is very apparent as the time passes. A CD of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was playing – unobtrusive, as it was designed to be, yet evoking an atmosphere of contemplation and reflection. Around me the great flat fields of the East gave way to the hills of the Southern downs. And at some point out of nowhere a line came into my head: Mice are in the organ loft. I can hear their scratch and scatter… Instantly I knew in what church that organ loft was situated and what scene from my past was unfolding beneath it. Within 20 to 30 minutes I had the first nine-line stanza composed and when I stopped for fuel I quickly wrote it down. By the time I reached my destination I had the second stanza in place and I scribbled it into my notebook before conducting the business in hand.
And then most of the way home I pondered what had happened – how out of nowhere a line had materialised, followed rapidly by a sequence of supporting lines all following a narrative course culminating in a conclusion, the whole linking long-past experience with present perception. The poem had evolved with a kind of steady urgency, its intrinsic mood and atmosphere developing with the falling of the verses and now, as I drove home, I was gripped by the resonance of the memories contained within it and their significance to me now decades later. It was as if the poem had performed a kind of partial decoding process, encapsulating an isolated sequence of events, undramatic in themselves at the time but clearly of considerable moment within a much broader, deeper consciousness now. It’s in this kind of way that memory and time underpin much of my poetry – unbidden and yet compelling in its essence and purposeful in the process of its composition.
In Burn Norton from the Four Quartets T.S. Eliot has four lines that I have always cherished for its representation of the factual imprecision of memories which are nonetheless vivid and powerful:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
I can’t answer for other poets nor can I project some general principle for the greater function of memory within verse. But I have long believed of my own work that in part at least its substance arises from deep within both my active and passive resources of recollection. And it’s been apparent to me for a long time now that each of these memory-driven poems carries within its imagery a set of ciphers. These may or may not be clearly comprehensible to me, but I will always recognise in them a potent significance in respect of what they describe at the point of occurrence and an enduring and informing consequence now.
IN THE DAUBIGNY CHAPEL
Mice are in the organ loft. I can hear
their scratch and scatter, tiny scraps
of moss on the move across the bones
of their ancestors. July sun shimmers
the riches of the windows. And down
on the south aisle floor, sprawling like
a scrubbing penitent, your golden hair
across your face, you lift the brass
up through the paper, inch by inch.
We are in the blissful moment, you
and I. Light and time reiterate
and the motes of dust stand still.
You look so young, so beautiful that
I barely hear the voice that murmurs,
small but clear, ‘You want. Not need
but want. Know this now and then
down the long noise of the years.