Listening to the Poet Laureate in his shed.

I’d just like to reassure you, before we go any further, that I’m not about to confess details of my unsuspected dark-side. While I may have, in the past, enjoyed overhearing conversations on public transport, and in cafes and restaurants, those occasions were purely accidental, and largely unavoidable.

I’m not currently so desperate to feed my habit that I’m sneaking across county boundaries to lurk in gardens in an earwigging-Tomasina fashion. I shan’t need to, thanks to Simon Armitage’s BBC pod-cast recordings. Where would I be without my radio?

As a fellow shed owner, and user, I was instantly drawn to the title, The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed. If my first thought was that I would be listening to a monologue, the blurb gave me a list of eleven guests, and when I checked the date, the series had been made before the lock-down. Two unrelated people able to safely connect, in a small space? Ahhh.

Add to that the idea of our Poet Laureate chatting when he was meant to be writing, and it’s certain that I’m going to drop in to hear what’s said.

The writing that is supposed to be happening, during shed-time, is a translation of The Owl and the Nightingale from middle-English. It is, Simon Armitage explains, a comic, medieval debate. I take it that the poem triggered the idea for the pod-casts.

I stumbled across episode nine, on Saturday evening, because I’d left the radio playing while I tidied up, and caught a repeat broadcast. His guest was new to me. I’ve clearly not been listening to what’s happening in the arts, because Simon described Kate Tempest as multi-talented. She’s ‘a spoken word artist’ ,but that seems to include being a poet, playwright, rapper and novelist. Phew.

Simon & Kate

He might have added, conversationalist to that list. Time passed so quickly, I hardly noticed my chores, and was surprised to find I’d taken an hour to do them.

What did Simon and Kate talk of? All sorts. It was a lovely, gentle, discussion, about the nature and basis of their art, and backgrounds. It was wordsmiths using words to think about the power of words, but it was also a demonstration of the art of conversation. There was a focus, but there was also freedom to roam across topics, to explore.

To finish, though, I want to focus on writing, because as the recording reached the end, Kate said she had something she wanted to say to Simon, and us listeners. Her thoughts seem to me to apply to other forms of producing and consuming literature, and music.

I feel like I’m a novice, that I have so much to learn. Every time I read a poem I’ve got no idea why it does to me, what it does. When it’s a great one, you know. Sometimes it feels like the most mysterious of forms. Even though I have all this experience of doing it in a certain way, there’s so much I…. it makes me feel so young, all the time, when you’re at the foot of a great poem…

Simon’s reply? ‘Actually, if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be interesting, would it…That journey, that’s why I’m in it. It’s not the product, it’s the process…’

Oh, the joys and compensations of being a radio listener. I shall need to ration those other ten interviews carefully.

On Leaving School

He grew strong on the farm.
Was handy shovelling on the right side
or the left.
‘Worth a bonus, that,’ old Fred said,
as they emptied the pigsty,
‘if we were navies.’

Best of all he liked tractor work,
sitting in the cab with a fag
and the radio.

His world was the turning of turf,
a shiny plough-share slicing a neat row
from hedge to ditch.

Years disappeared that way.

Words and meanings

At Liverpool, during my first year at the university, one of the compulsory modules was Interpreting Poetry.  Each Monday morning we met to look in depth at a single poem, for two hours.

There were nine poems, chosen chronologically to demonstrate the development of poetry.  Beginning with Beowulf and ending with Sylvia Plath’s Daddy, it was an introductory selection of well-known titles.  We read them so that the tutors could introduce us to various theories, and we read them so that we could practice critical responses.  We looked at what a poem said and how it said it, and we wrote some short essays.

Did you note that, ‘short essays’ phrase?  It trips so glibly off the tongue that it’s easy to impossible water featuremiss the significance of it.  What it refers to are pages of interpretations about a single piece of writing.  Most of those poems, even stretched out carefully, did not fill a single sheet of paper, but we found a lot to say about them.

Poet, I read in my notes from those classes, comes from the Greek, ποειν (poyine), meaning to make, to create, to produce, to compose, to write.  Reading further, I find that what distinguishes poetry from prose, is the presence of a rhythm and/or rhyme scheme.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun Prose as,

Language in the form in which it is typically written (or spoken), usually characterized as having no deliberate metrical structure (in contrast with verse or poetry).

There’s a more comprehensive comparison on Wikipedia, if you’re interested in going further down that road.

However, I’m going back to the OED, where I find that the first written reference to ‘prose’ is in the Wycliffite Bible of 1382.  As I travel down the next eight definitions of prose, and (incidentally) the next seven centuries, prose takes on additional meanings. It is a story, narrative or statement: it is plain, simple and matter of fact; (often with negative connotations) and even, dull, commonplace or turgid.  Poor old prose, what a litany.

Taken alone, the plain, simple and matter of fact might seem to be something to aspire to: perhaps to imply truthfulness.  But I can’t say I like the rest.  Besides, poems also tell truths, don’t they?

So I check out the compounds section.  Phew, this sounds more creative.  All I have to do is put prose with another word, such as book, satire, work, author, dramatist, or fiction.

Well that’s a relief, for a moment there it looked like prose was not going to add up to much.  Maybe I could aspire to be a prose-poet writing poetic-prose.  The OED defines that as, ‘writing that has a poetical character.’ Hmm. So that’s what those nine weeks of studying were for.

All I have to do is apply the principles I learned through deconstructing other people’s poetry to my writing.  Simple.

Isn’t it?