Sometimes a poem just happens in plain air. – Dick Jones, 'Song Without Words'
I first discovered the poetry of Dick Jones a couple of years ago. He posted a poem on his site called 'Fox Hunting' which I stumbled across — as you do — and I was so struck by his use of language that I immediately subscribed to his blog and have read it faithfully ever since. It just goes to show that decisions made on impulse can be good ones.
A wee while ago, in passing, Dick let slip that he was a bit depressed by the lack of visitors his site was attracting and I've been concerned that he might give it up as a bad job which would be a crying shame because I think he's one of the best poets working online at the moment and he deserves more attention.
So I've set aside this post to highlight some of his work and let the man speak for himself. But first, let's have a look at that poem, the one that so struck me:
Up on Bell's Hill, hours
after sundown; watchless
thus timeless; starlight printed
on the earth below:
all the lights of Exeter
in a black bowl. We breathe
through our mouths. No wind
in the hillside beeches
or the hawthorn hedge
we crouch behind. Bob looms
at my side, log-still,
indistinct, yet electric
with attention, his cradled shotgun
staring at the ground,
round-eyed. An owl quavers
in the ice-heart of the wood.
Movement at the field's edge: shadow
on shadow; an elision of shape
and formlessness. The fox slides
along a dark rail, single-
purposed, the fanatic's way —
hand over hand through
the long grass
at the field's edge.
Bob's gun coughs twice,
dry-voiced. Night cracks
like slate; shards fly
and the world tips up.
We stare, bloodshot, jangling,
into the bright darkness.
Shadows realign at the field's edge.
Night self-heals, like water.
My first thought when I read this was that this was the kind of poem that we'd get handed out in English class at school on hard-to-read roneoed copies, the kind where we'd look at the title and groan internally: Christ! Who wants to read a poem about ruddy foxes?
And then the teacher would read it aloud — no point asking one of us because we'd ruin it — and suddenly the thing would "happen in plain air" to use Dick's expression, at least how I interpret that expression. Then she'd start to ask questions and open the poem up line by line so that when she read it again at the end of the lesson it had become something else entirely.
It was having the poetry of Owen, Larkin and Hughes amongst others broken down and reassembled like this that made poetry come alive for me. 'Fox Hunting' would have slipped in there, unnoticed, without any problem but I would have carried that last line with me for years.
Describe your poetry in three words.
Obsessive compulsive disorder.
When did you start writing and why poetry as opposed to prose?
I started writing at the age of 15 after reading, first, Rupert Brooke and then Owen and Sassoon. Such was my unthinking arrogance at the time, instead of simply reading and absorbing with humility, I decided to become — a little late in the day — a war poet and I produced a slim volume of solemn, po-faced parodies. A gathering sense of the implausibility of this project coincided with my discovery of the Beats and I changed allegiance and became instead a hipster torn from the streets of Greenwich Village and locked up in a progressive boarding school in West Yorkshire.
My output at the time was as prolific (and as frightful) in prose as in poetry. Later, when the writing began to serve intrinsic creative needs rather than extrinsic public posing, I began to relish the compression and musicality of poetry.
How does a poem "happen in plain air"? My wife wondered if it was connected in any way to the French expression en plein air.
The phrase comes from ‘Poem Without Words’, which depicts a brief scene witnessed from a car. I was caught in slow moving traffic on the A3 beside Roehampton cemetery and I noticed an elderly man amongst the graves picking his way towards the roadside fence. Stumbling just behind him was a young man with Down’s syndrome and he was crying. As the man reached the fence, he lobbed a bunch of decayed flowers onto a dump and turned around to face the young man. At that point the traffic moved forwards and the scene passed from view. It occurred to me immediately that — because of its fragmentary nature and its deeper unstated resonances — the tiny fragment of narrative that might have been playing out during those few seconds could only be captured in a poem. In that sense, a brief series of events was enacted en plein air and their substance was inferred, as it were, into a poem.
You poems are often nostalgic, looking back on an England that no longer exists — I'm thinking here of poems here like 'The Sun Hotel, Dedham, 1954' — is this just you getting old?
‘Getting older’ would have been kinder, Jim! It’s certainly to do with the passage of time and the functions of memory. But what I’m aiming for is a representation of continuity and the persistence of processes of nature that were with us then and are with us still. That’s certainly the concern of ‘The Sun Hotel’. All of which having been said, I love the countryside and I live in a rural corner of Hertfordshire whose fields, hedgerows, copses and lanes remind me very much of what was once. Not, I insist, a sentimental ‘Merrie England’ model, but simply a time when the pace and content of life was slower and simpler.
Your poetry is rich with imagery; similes and metaphors abound. Let me quote three examples:
mugged by a memory . . . Hamstrung by dreams
from 'Love Song Too Late'
Mummified, like the bog-man
trapped by time, you lie dumbfounded,
mud-bound and uncomprehending
. . . their legs
seem afterthoughts, a child's
drawn at all four corners.
from 'Sheep on the Brown Hill'
In principal, yes, I do agree. My favourite poets manage an uncluttered, economical style illuminated at the crucial moment by incisive, startling images. But then again there is a danger always in poetry of over egging the pudding with long strings of florid metaphors and similes. This may occur either because the poet has simply fallen asleep at the wheel and lost control of the vehicle or because he or she is subscribing to the Dylan Thomas dictum of ‘when in doubt, confuse the buggers’. Either way the coinage is debased and meaning is obfuscated and impact (for meaning is not everything) is lessened.
I've noticed touches of R. S. Thomas in your work. Is he a particular source of inspiration?
Very much so. Badgered at the end of ‘Desert Island Poems’ for just one poet’s work, it would be R.S. Thomas’. As he progressed through his extraordinary poetic life, like Beckett, he tried to pare the writing back to the bone, seeking an economy of style that would best represent the bleakness and solitude of it all. But again like Beckett, there is a humour that illumines the verse and there’s a deep humanity at its core. I’m happy to acknowledge him as an influence because, the final analysis, where he was driven by a fierce, troubled but ultimately unyielding belief in divinity, I am not. So there is dislocation at the point of theme that ensures that I’m not entirely in thrall to the man and his work!
And what would that poem be?
Impossible to pick — too many from which to choose!
Well, in that case I'll include my favourite. It was the first poem by him that I read and it totally bowled me over. It still makes me shiver to this day.
ON THE FARM
There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.
There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after the ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail.
There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say?
I have heard him whistling in the hedges
On and on, as though winter
Would never again leave those fields,
And all the trees were deformed.
And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life’s dark book
The shrill sentence: God is love.
Who else do you draw from?
I don’t know that I’m conscious of ‘drawing from’ any particular poets. But directions have been suggested and influences brought to bear from various sources. The Beats were an early stimulus — at the time, more for the sex, drugs and hot bebop, maybe — but I’ve retained an affection and regard for much of the poetry that emerged during that relatively brief era. T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence were powerful early influences too, as was Ted Hughes. And then – in isolation rather than by association – Sylvia Plath; she made a very powerful impact and I admire her verse enormously still.
Contemporary poets (living and dead) whose work I enjoy greatly include John Burnside, Philip Larkin, Pauline Stainer, Peter Redgrove, Alice Oswald and increasing numbers of the poets with whom I come in contact via blogging. A great joy of the interactional nature of blogging is the sense of our being active agents within a vigorous community of disparate output but common cause. I think that I draw from that as much as from the direct inspiration of any particular poet.
Thomas said: "You write a poem for yourself mainly. And if anyone else wants to get involved, well, there you go . . ." I sense that is especially true for you. Am I wrong?
No, that’s quite correct. I’m delighted if a poem receives a favourable reaction, or if someone takes enough interest in form and content to offer a crit. But from a poem’s inception to its emergence into early structure, I have no sense of any recipient other than myself. I write in concentrated bursts between sometimes lengthy fallow periods. And I write compulsively, driven entirely by the need to get to the other side of the nascent poem towards some kind of completion, however provisional. And although I very much want to disseminate the verse around more magazines and I’m actively seeking publication of a collection, for as long as it doesn’t happen and beyond, I shall continue to write.
You rework your poems over what I would guess would be a number of years in some cases. Do you ever finish them? Or simply abandon them? (I'm thinking about what Paul Valéry said here.)
It’s difficult to say because there’s variation from one poem to another. But I guess it’s probably abandonment at a certain point. I don’t work to any principle here. When I start a poem I have no notion as to the probable, or even possible duration of its gestation period. Nor do recognise in any draft an absolute completion. But I do have many poems that I know I shall leave entirely alone. Poems are, for better or worse, crafted objects. They have some of the characteristics of physical artefacts and they suffer from limited structural durability; too much interference with the superstructure and the infrastructure will fall away.
So structure is clearly important to you — one could never call your poems "chopped up prose" — can you give me an example or two to illustrate why you've organised your lines a certain way?
How a poem stands on the ground is crucial. There must be architecture; there must be a sense of stress and counter-stress, however eccentric or wayward. I work to rhythm and will shift and re-order constantly to achieve some rhythmic integrity within a poem. There is rarely iambic consistency in any of my free verse, but if meter varies, it’ll vary in such a way as not to compromise the overall rhythmic properties of the poem.
However, there’s no clear advance planning directing the structuring of each poem. It will begin to take form and I will feel either comfort with the emergent line lengths and will proceed accordingly or discomfort and I’ll re-structure. My notebooks are full of early variations in line lengths and stanza formation. But there’s no indication on the page of why I have varied, fiddled or altered entirely a poem’s structure. It’s done solely on sensation; there’s no predetermined set of protocols governing the process. So I can’t provide examples of the hammer-and-chisel work done on any specific poem because I haven’t a retrospective clue as to what declared the route taken.
Larkin said that you can't teach poetry. Would you agree with him?
Stanislavski insisted throughout his long theatrical life that, with prime motivation on the part of the individual, anyone could learn how to act. I suspect that the same is true of the writing of poetry. A skilled teacher should, at the very least, be able to work towards the releasing of both the bonds that inhibit the kind of relationship with words that the poet must enjoy and the nurturing of that relationship itself. So in the sense that all good teaching is to do, not with instruction but release, then I think that Larkin is wrong. I suspect that Larkin, for all his acute interest in the inner workings of girls’ boarding schools, would have made a crap teacher.
I've been very keen to demystify inspiration. Is it important to you or if I gave you a topic right now could you rattle off something right now?
I do get inspired, but it’s a slow, undramatic process with nothing of the epiphanic about it. An idea will sidle in pretty much unannounced and I will interrogate it for feasibility and if it sounds plausible, I’ll open the notebook and proceed with the graft. Then again, I’ll stumble across a line or maybe just a phrase and I’ll begin to write, not entirely clear as to where I’m headed. At some point the direction will clarify and the process will speed up, or it’ll stall within a few words and the fragment will remain unattended, sometimes for years. I recently completed a long poem called ‘Binners’, all about experience of working in a mental hospital at the age of 20. I wrote a single eight-line stanza four or five years ago, which then lingered in my spare parts folder with diminishing indications of potential growth. Then suddenly, a propos of no conscious moment of inspiration, a lengthy poem sprung from the fragment, written at some speed over a relatively short period of time. Then, when I posted it, one of the few comments it drew suggested that it would work better without the initial scene setting stanza, which made a lot of sense to me so I dropped it. Thus, the processes of inspiration — following no logical or consistent course!
Working Notes for ‘Binners’
What would your advice be to a young up-and-coming poet?
The easy bit: in the first instance, write from what you know and draw on language that is familiar to you. The challenge: find a wise, knowledgeable, patient mentor with lots of time on his or her hands! And read widely and constantly and don’t be afraid of initial parody when specific influences make themselves felt. Wait for your ‘voice’.
Most people have sheds in their back gardens. What's so different about yours?
This question arises from a poem called ‘Sheds’. I’m afraid the three sheds in our garden in no way resemble the sheds described in the poem. One is a chaos of broken furniture, paint pots and two lawnmowers, one broken, the other just about functional; another — the largest — is an unsuccessful ‘garden office’, which has simply become a repository for thousands of books; the last one is a warehouse containing the impedimenta, neatly bagged and boxed, of two peoples’ lives.
You've recently retired from teaching. How's that working out for you?
For 40-odd years I was a Drama teacher and I loved it. The autonomy (most Heads haven’t a clue what Drama is all about but are responsive to its curricular popularity), the huge appeal of an essentially practical subject, the enormous unspoiled talent of kids still ready, willing and able (against the dead hand of their schooling) to engage in the free play of the imagination into their late teens. To my continuing surprise, I don’t miss the classroom work at all, but I do miss working towards a production a great deal. Play direction was what I enjoyed most and I’m actively looking for opportunities to carry it on. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying being a housewife and mum alongside all the other playground mums at my kids’ nursery and primary school.
My final question to Dick was: If you could be remembered for just one poem, which one would it be? He chose 'A Clear Blue Sky'. This is what he had to say about the poem on his blog:
In my poems generally, I’m more comfortable with shorter lines. The voice that speaks the poems in the first instance tends to be terse and laconic and any subsequent embellishment occurs in the crafting process. 'A Clear Blue Sky' emerged in one session pretty much as it appears now. However, I’ve been gradually trimming and reshaping ever since, shifting or editing out words and reorganising the enjambment. This version will, I hope, remain intact.
My dad was a man of prose — a specialist: words used
like gardening tools to conjure shapes, to fashion patterns.
Language mattered: correspondence ran to pages —
letters to the council; ‘thank you’ cards to nurses
that read like testimonials. Even notes to the milkman
came across like billets doux to an old and valued friend.
And the writing: tiny box-shaped words in biro,
whispering in lines, or gathered quietly in the margins,
small-voiced but insistent, looking for truths.
When he knew that he was dying, he sat at the edge
of his life, scribbling a commentary. Twinges
from a cancer hotspot got a note immediately,
draped around the Guardian crossword clues
or squeezed between the calculations in his ledger:
where it hurt, for what duration, and, in imagistic detail,
the character of pain (like a voice, like broken glass, an ache
like winter rheumatism). And, towards the end, in his little diary,
potted phrases: “Slept well”, “Insomnia”, “Coughing still”.
For we who sat around his bed, it was the silence
that confounded. To the nurses plumping pillows, lifting cups
from which he didn’t want to drink; to waiting family
fiddling with the radio, sifting through his laundry,
he said nothing. All his words were spent just days ahead
of the breath that carried them. And then, the afternoon
of the day he died, the clouds drew back, late spring appeared.
Mum leaned back towards the window, smiled and said:
‘Look — a clear blue sky’, and we turned to see.
My father didn’t turn his head. Whatever sky he saw
was far behind in time, or maybe just ahead. Whatever sky it was,
no messianic veil, no chariots of fire obscured the view.
His great abundance, just like ours, was absolutely empty —
birdless, sunless, silent and ineffable, mocking the mad commotion
down below. He drew in breath, breathed out and said:
‘A clear blue sky’, floating the words on the sterile air
like autumn leaves. He didn’t speak again; he died that night
and, one by one, the stars went out, a lexicon set free.
I asked Dick to provide me with a little bio to end this piece and this is what I got:
Initially wooed by the First World War poets and then seduced by the Beats, Dick Jones has been exploring the vast territories in between since the age of 15. Fitfully published in a variety of magazines throughout the years of rambling – Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, Poetry Ireland Review, Qarrtsiluni, Westwords, Mipoesias, Three Candles, Other Poetry and others. Grand plans for the meisterwerk have been undermined constantly either by a Much Better Idea or a sort of Chekhovian inertia. So he has no prize collection to his name; he has masterminded no radical creative writing programmes in a cutting edge university department; he has edited no recherché poetry magazines with lower case titles.
For fun and profit, Dick plays bass guitar, bouzouki and bodhran in an Anglo/Celtic dance band. If anyone would like to follow up the poems published here, please check out his blog, Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages.
An archive of his poetry can also be found here.