The fullness of time

Just back from a week at the glorious Château Ventenac where spring had arrived before us, and the wisteria was buzzing with fat black bees. We came together to discuss the poetic sequence, especially in relation to space (but also place) and time.

We started by looking at Georges Perec’s funny little book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a treatise to writers on how to observe, but also on how to immerse oneself in the moment. Perec recorded everything he saw in the place Saint-Sulpice over the course of a weekend (positioning himself, as any self-respecting Oulipo poet might, at various café vantage-points) without editorial comment or censorship, so that even the most mundane or pedantic details are faithfully listed. It reads like an exercise because that’s what it is. When we get down to the business of making experience into poetry, we select, so that certain details might be singled out, highlighted as significant. It is interesting to consider what we cross out in the process.

And that’s where the idea of a sequence comes in. One poem is sometimes not enough to contain all the things we need to show. Why not more? After all, poets love numerology, the idea of splitting language into a neat package of lines or stanzas. So why not five poems (like the fingers on a hand) or seven (like the deadly sins, or the days of the week), to show different points of view, angles, timeframes, narratives, etc? We moved from Perec to Stevens, and his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which gives us such variations, like a Cubist painting or a jazz riff put into words. We thought about the symbolism of the blackbird, the number thirteen, and what Stevens is saying about fate and how language tries to express big things like mortality – and often misses – unless we can focus on the small details. We agreed that his blackbird never feels like an omen, an harbinger of bad luck (after all, Stevens is a champion of the commonplace rather that the fanciful – no nightingale for him) but rather a presence that is alive and moving in a static landscape …

Although it was actually the hoopoe who was sighted, sunning in the lower terrace, and of course, the resident black swans of the Canal du Midi. I include them here because I’m often asked what I have against swans – it’s their romanticising I resist. The black ones have a sort of mythical quality about them, although these two are hardly mysterious – they are used to being fed by tourists on longboat holidays, so they will swim right over to you, and demand attention, trumpeting loudly.

We attempted a group exercise (based on Anne Berkeley’s wonderful versions of Baudelaire’s Pipe) to identify the different ways we perceive language. We all looked at the same poem by Eluard, and came up with our own versions, ranging from fairly faithful translations of the original, to surreal statements based on a complete ignorance of French – increasingly more unstable as comprehension and meaning fly through the window.

And flying is what time did too. It seemed like a lot to pack into a week, and so it was. Naturally, it passed very quickly, in the excited mix of poems and chat, and food and wine. And suddenly I find myself back at my desk in London (where spring seems to have been and gone).

I began my week in the walled medieval citadel of Carcassonne, a place which is sealed in time, and so I end with a photograph, taken by poet Sue Rose, of a motif of decorative carvings – remains of larger structures – arranged on a wall to celebrate pattern and light. Like a good poem, or a series of poems, each one a little bit different than the one next to it.