British summer(time)

It has always been the case that what we value most is what we have in short supply: our desire is increased by the impossibility of attainment. As I sit here in the glorious sun, the years of bleak grey sodden summers in my adopted country are forgotten (or, if not completely forgotten, at least pushed to one side). I can’t dismiss the rain entirely – it defines the British tendency towards stoical acceptance, which I have always admired – but I am grateful this summer to be reminded of the sort of summers I remember from childhood: languid, hot and joyful. This sort of hot July day instantly carries me back to summers in New Jersey in the 70s (as snowfall too makes me nostalgic for those long cold winters).

But weather can also jolt us forward: July has been a month of poetry journeys to other parts of the country. At the beginning of the month, I spent some time in Frome with fellow poets on a writing retreat. As I have said before, these retreats are invaluable. I love the familiarity of my desk and having all my books around me, but routine can be a hindrance. I find there are moments in my writing life when I want to shake myself up, change direction – this is especially so between projects, when I’m waiting for the next big idea to ‘hit’ me. I only wrote one new poem in Frome, but it was a poem I needed to complete – a response to the drawings of the artist David Harker, for a publication he’s releasing later in the year. As David’s recent drawings are very detailed studies of trees, I took myself off to a field and sat under the shade of an oak and started to write. The resulting poem was informed by the immediacy of my conditions: Frome, oak, field, summer; but also the conversation I had with David a few weeks before, the recent death of my mother, the memory of other summers which seemed to be unlocked with the heat. I am interested in how a poem can be a map of a particular moment in the poet’s life, and how that private information is often obscured from the reader. When I reread my poems, I can remember where each one was written, what was happening in my life at the time, what triggered the initial idea or the first line. My poems are my private diary, but I’m aware that their public lives are entirely different.


These discussions of process and practice continued this week in Teeside, where I have been the guest of the Hall Garth poets. We spent a lot of time talking about form, how the poem is enclosed in its shape, how it can represent ‘spots of time’, to quote Coleridge. We sat in the cool interior of the Chop Gate Village Hall for our discussions, and then emerged into the sun to write. When I’m leading a group, I never manage to write anything of my own (the concentration is different); but I have made lots of notes for new poems. Next week I take these impressions and discussions back to my desk in London, where somehow that process of ordering and remembering always manages to shape itself into a poem. And I hope the forecast will remain sunny as well.