Articles and Essays

Building a Reputation

By Joe Massingham

One of the hardest, though most interesting, activities in the writer’s world is the struggle to get the foundations for your work dug.  Yes, that’s right – getting the foundations in place.

Typically, the work will start in some hard, unpromising, even rocky areas. You sit and stare in front of you, wondering what you might find to write about in this barren place. You scratch tentatively at the earth’s surface with your mind shovel, scribbling a few doodles on the stony ground in front of you.

“It was…” on the first rock, “hard to think of..” on the next, “something”, “anything”…”to write about.” It’s taken you thirteen minutes to get this far. How long will it be before your intended masterpiece is completed at this rate?”

You’re so disheartened that you don’t see and can’t feel what’s happening. The first couple of doodles probably don’t fit together; even if they do, it’s coincidence. But as you go on the little crumbs you scratch out can be pushed together to make something a bit like a slice of bread. No butter, no jam, so far but at last you’ve made a start on producing a useful brick or slab.

Keep doing this for 15-20 minutes (don’t let anything persuade you to desert the effort) and you’ll see clearly that your construction is speeding up, the shape of your writing emerging from the earlier dust. Even more importantly, you’ll become aware that your mind is making a deliberate effort to produce bits that fit together, keep to a coherent plan, expand ideas together into ever larger frames and walls.  Enthusiasm takes over: “Keep this up and I’ll soon have a ‘desirable residence’ to offer the world.”  you tell yourself as you labour with pen and paper ever more enthusiastically.

Of course, your hopes and dreams won’t always come true. This is the real world, after all. But they and the writings they produce will quite quickly form a brick pile that with a bit of sorting you’ll be able to put together into sections and slabs that fit together to produce frames and walls of outline houses.

Now you can start to call in the other tradesmen: plasterers to smooth your rough drafts; electricians to put some spark into your work; furnishers to make it appealing to potential readers, tilers so your work can be capped off and presented attractively to the passer-by.

Like most builders you’ll be keen to get this property on the market as soon as possible. “The paying public deserves to have access to this,” you’ll think to yourself. This is where a big notice on your construction office wall – “More haste, less speed,” – will pay solid dividends.



The Music of Poetry

By Joe Massingham

Reviews of poets’ work often refer to the lack of, or interference with, the music of a poem. In response would-be poets ask what this means. This is an attempt to throw some light on the basic meaning of the term and its central place in poetry.

A moment’s thought should show you that poetry is a form of music; its composers’ tools are words, their sounds and their meanings, rhythm, cadence, or inflection, and pace. It has the considerable additional benefit of being better able to conjure up visual images in our minds than most other forms of music.

In many places where poetry is learned there is, in my view, an overemphasis on rhythm, particularly classical rhythms. If this emphasis is compared with the almost limitless variety of rhythmic forms, including arrythmia, used in instrumental or sung music it’s clear that poetry of this sort is being deprived of a wide range of musical possibilities.

Similarly, the emphasis in the past century or so on writing poetry rather than performing poetry, as had been the norm for centuries, has denied poetry its chance to contribute to the sound element of the world’s music.

There are, of course, honourable modern exceptions to this claim. Writers such as e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac and John Masefield have all made significant use of the sound element of poetry in their work, though it is worth noting that in all cases live performance has been a significant part of their endeavour.

To get to a couple of concrete examples of how valuable sounds can be I’ll start with John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.

To take the most obvious of the sound pictures, read line 3. All those ‘w’ sounds! You can hear the wind beating on the sails and the breaking of the sea against the bow of the ship. In an orchestra this would probably be produced by the sound of a muffled drum, perhaps a cello and a low range horn such as a tuba.

Then the music changes and we get all those long ‘a’ sounds that convey a picture of calmer, quieter, perhaps slower progress. Perhaps gentler strings, such as violas, and an instrument such as a clarinet or saxophone.

A quite different example might be taken from another early twentieth century poet, Alfred Noyes, in his poem ‘The Highwayman’:

The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding Riding-riding- The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

First you get the night setting, the long ‘o’s, the ‘oo’’s, the ‘ur’ and the ‘oor’, all sounds of peacefulness and calm. Then, suddenly all the ‘i’s repeated in a fast riding rhythm; you can just about hear the rubbing of the saddle leather and the harness!

(As an aside, in his later years Noyes taught at Princeton for several years, so mucical poetry exists in learned company.)

Sadly, there isn’t room in this piece to present and discuss more examples of the music so essential to good poetry. However, I hope you have glimpsed enough of the important part it plays and a hint of ways it can be produced. Next time you write a poem read it out loud and see if it passes the ‘music’ test!



Cow-Fighting For Depressives

By Darren James Coles

These past two weeks I have felt lethargic. Almost depressed maybe. If you were to stop by my room*, you’d often find me curled up on my bed like a hibernating dormouse. However, unlike a hibernating dormouse, you would also have found me watching endless Youtube videos. Dormice, even when they aren’t in a state of metabolic depression, are rarely gifted with the necessary IT skills to access a human computer. Although if they were, they’d probably appreciate the irony of having to use a computer ‘mouse’, a bit of mouse-human humour that could finally end the apartheid of our species. Instead they choose to roll around in straw and faeces, while we build rockets and attempt to cure cancer. Perhaps Steinbeck was right to condemn them in his comparative biological study of rodents, ‘Of Mice And Men’. At least I think he was. I’ve not read it.

But in order to draw myself out of lethargy and mouse-related tangents, I go for walks. There’s a study somewhere that has proven that a daily walk in the countryside is more effective in lifting your mood than antidepressants. Having been prescribed both in my lifetime** I’d say that both remedies can be equally as addictive, although only one requires the use of a sturdy pair of boots and the ability to outmanoeuvre a herd of cows. The NHS has yet to prescribe cow-fighting for depressives, but perhaps they should at least consider including it in the mental health policy.

Living in the West Country and currently in-between jobs (‘dole parasite’ does not look good on a CV), I have plenty of time to trace the green, densely-forested hills and valleys with my clumsy hyper-mobile legs. There’s nothing like an evening stroll in the balmy air to blow away the sticky cobwebs of ego that cling to the inside of your mind. But bringing yourself to the present moment and dissolving an uncertain future of gas bill overdue notices is not as easy as people think. In a nutshell, the fundamental reality of existence is that all we have is the present moment, nothing is outside of it, nothing is inside of it, in the emptiness of being lies space, all is alive yet all is stillness, got that? No, I didn’t think so. The future and past still bother us like the spectral corpses of old friends taunting an elderly World War II veteran on a park bench. “Come with us, Frank!” They say, “The real world’s for the young, you have no place here! You’re a coward for surviving, Frank! When was the last time you’re son came to visit? Christmas? Come 12:30pm, he was itching to go, remember?” And so on and so on, until Frank is found suffocated by the fumes of his beloved Morris Minor, withered fingers tightly clutching a George Cross medal and a black and white photograph of his long-dead wife.

But, for me, in order to access presence and get out of thought identification, spiritual inspiration is crucial. Like a carrot to a donkey, I let a mental symbol –whether that be a person, poem or chewy chunk of bite-size philosophy – hang in the foreground of my mind to follow whilst I walk. For example, I was strolling through dusty summertime streets of Exeter last week, reading from Allen Ginsberg poems at various quiet spots along the way. This was the first book of poetry I ever bought a few years ago, so I’m familiar with the good ‘uns. ‘Sunflower Sutra’ is one that bares particular relevance to the aforementioned anxious wallowing in man-made thoughts. It’s basically Ginsberg’s meditation on a grimy sunflower next to a railroad track. He compares it to the human being and his condition in life: “Poor dead flower? When did you forget you were a flower? When did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? The ghost of a locomotive?”*** For me, this passage takes sympathy with the modern human, neglecting their being, too busy dwelling in mouse humour, Youtube videos and despair about their own lack of motivation.

The grime of lethargy has gotten into their cracks and crevices, leaving them in stupefied sadness (which is not a district in Exeter).

But I mulled over these lines, repeating them to myself, keeping the mental image of the Ginsbergian sunflower of the self, of pure being, in front of me. The literal walk and metaphorical movement towards this picture of calmness became one. As I walk onto the main high street, the words become a gateway to the feeling of my body, then move through that feeling into the hard world of presence as I hum them aloud like a nutter at a bus stop. I notice every shape and sound: shadows in shop doorways, old blokes looking lost amongst Tescos carrier bags, burnt out buskers with angelic voices, moments of silence in between cars. All is here and now. Nowhere else. Most of these moments are so sacred and private that the mind immediately forgets them. Some remain, usually as fodder for bitty poems or humourous articles. Checkmate, brain!

Sometimes the words undergo semantic satiation, like when I was a greedy fat child chewing a whole packet of Hubbabubbas at once. The sticky ball of sentences doesn’t make any sense, but begins to chime on a deeper subconscious level through the low hum of vocal chords kept to time by the metronome of my steps. Some thoughts materialize like flies around a haloed soup, but through intense focusing on the chant, they can soon lose interest, fly away or simply die. Soon you’ll find that the words stir up a calming vibration, much like the relaxing throb you get after getting out of a Jacuzzi (something a working class gutter snipe like me rarely has the opportunity to do).

By the time I get home, I can feel my body buzzing with energy, like a tuning fork that a hyperactive child has banged on the desk repeatedly. I’m tired and aching, yet still and contemplative. Lethargy and the fug of depression are left behind on the corner of New North Road, mournfully asking where the nearest taxi rank is. Hopefully more spiritual walks will be on the agenda in the future, which perhaps will lead to more a more prolific creative life for me. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to organize a shipment of bovines to the Maudsley mental hospital.


*Hypothetical, NOT an invitation.

**Walking = self prescribed, medication = various haggard, indifferent GPs.

***’Sunflower Sutra’, Ginsberg. Balding holy homosexual.

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