The slow burn

Since my last post, I have already failed the task of writing a poem a day, and we are only a week into this month. What I have managed to produce is one draft and two fragments. Pitiful. So instead of attempting to write a poem, or posting any of my meagre efforts so far, I’ve decided to analyse why I’ve been unable to do so.

Poems for me are, for the most part, slow burning. I tend to examine things from every angle, to consider all possibilities. It doesn’t necessarily mean I arrive at firm conclusions. Some poems end up tailing off, chasing tangents, starting off on one idea and ending on something completely different. But that’s the beauty of poems. They do not have to prove an argument. They don’t have to be logical. Their meanings are not fixed.

A lot of the poems I like operate in that manner. They are mysterious and strange. I don’t necessarily understand what they mean, although I like to think I can draw certain conclusions, even if those conclusions come from a very personal interpretation. Meaning comes in layers, like a dance of the seven veils, only sometimes the final veil stays on.

A good analogy in painting would be Howard Hodgkin, whose work I’ve loved for many years for the same reason. Hodgkin says of his work, ‘I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.’ This suggests abstraction, but never pure abstraction, because you always catch a glimpse of a form or gesture or figure, but one which is fleeting, impossible to pin down. Sometimes the title is the only hint to what we’re really seeing.

The way Hodgkin paints is like the way I write poems. He creates a gradual build-up of successive layers and glazes of paint, which allows for corrections and second thoughts (kind of like a palimpsest of all your drafts of a poem viewed simultaneously). He works slowly, and sometimes doesn’t even begin to mark the canvas, until the subject has been with him, in his head, for many months.

So if I come out of April with one finished poem, which might very well incorporate the little daubs I’ve made already, and whatever is still to come, I’ll be perfectly happy. In the meantime, my tribute to Hodgkin, which originally appeared in Poetry Review, and will soon appear again in the new book.


after Howard Hodgkin

I see the scuffs and knots and bruises:
what a body takes.

The sea at night, tarmac road –
an obliteration, a mistake.

The Japanese master contemplates
the landscape from his mountain –

I clear the mud from my window,
wait for a revelation:

the antiseptic tinge of boredom,
silt of the airless room.

Now it’s quiet, the memory
of Spring behind us. Nights drawing in,

the tide is out, so when I walk
the edge of the shore my feet stick fast.

What a body needs:
the green warmth, someone to hold.