Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Raking in the ashes

On November 5th it's Guy Fawkes Night here in the UK. When I was a kid it was something we used to get very excited about. Every community had their own bonfire. Ours used to be on a site behind Third Avenue before they built the industrial estate there; in fact my earliest memory is my dad come looking for me there while it was being constructed and it was safe for a four-year-old to wander the streets on his own. Nowadays, unless you live in Sussex, all that has stopped. Some of the local councils do fireworks displays but the whole community thing has died a death.

It's another Bonfire I remember fondly. It didn't have nearly as long a life but it burned bright and left a beautiful corpse.

It was a literary journal that wouldn't publish poetry without commentary. The reason? To try and provide some insight into the writing process, to help younger poets who were simply dumping raw emotions onto a page and thinking they were poems just because they said they were. There should be more magazines like that. I was sorry to see it go.

The only other one I knew of went by the unremarkable name of Poetry Information. It stopped publishing circa 1982 and I miss it still. It was a large format magazine (A4) about 120-odd pages in size. It didn't publish poems or stories. It focused on reviews of poetry books, lists of poetry magazines (which were legion back then) and articles discussing poetic technique. It was there I first read Tom Leonard's piece on William Carlos Williams, The Locust Tree in Flower, and why it had difficulty flowering in Britain, a greatly abridged version of which can be found here.

The only time I'd had poetry broken down was at school and I never paid nearly enough attention. But isn't that always the case? Of course I'd never heard of Williams but I'd never heard of Ezra Pound or even Walt Whitman, let alone the likes of Allen Ginsberg. Mind you I do remember a young, bearded, soft-spoken trainee teacher trying his level best to introduce us to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'Christ Climbed Down'. For God's sake I'd never even read any T S Eliot and he's British.

More poets should be willing to do this. I think it is a duty to pass on what we know. Poetry is not spilling out your guts and bunging in line breaks every now and then. That's a good starting place – get it down on paper while the fire is hot – but I like to return to that kind of outpouring later and rake through the ashes to see what's salvageable and I work with that.

Gustav Holst once observed a composer's most vital piece of equipment is an eraser. The same could be said about writers. I recently discarded 10,000 words. I've mentioned this before. It wasn't easy, but I would never have done that as a new writer. Every word was precious. When I look back at the poetry I churned out in my teens and it is all pretty awful, damp squibs and duds, BUT every now and then there was an idea, a spark or a couple of lines that deserve to be looked at again. Maybe one day I'll have a go at that.

In the meantime keep reading this blog. Every now and then I'll slip in a wee article explaining the hows and whys behind an old – or maybe a new – poem. They still crop up every now and then, like family, and you never turn family away.

8 comments: said...

Ah yes Jim, I remember the Guy Fawkes bonfire too -- we used to do them in Australia until they were banned.

My husband and I have quietly revived the tradition (albeit in October to avoid the fire season) -- there is a photo of our latest bonfire at my online journal.

Viva la bonfire!!! ;-)


Underground Controversy said...

This bonfire reminds me of the British movie I saw and liked, V...forget the full title. Great movie!

Very creative blog, but I find it a bit tough to see where your books are located. You might consider a few excerpt, since it is obvious that you are quite prolific. Cheers!
Steven Clark Bradley

Janet Grace Riehl said...

"Get it down on paper while the fire is hot...[then]...rake through the ashes"...what a great quote this is! If you get a chance to come to my site, I hope you have time to go over to the sidebar and read some of my sample poems from "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" and also the talks at readings section. There's a section on my blog for this as well you might enjoy. If you'd like to do a guest post sometime for my "Write, pen!" category, let me know.

Janet Riehl

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Ahhh, Jim.
Fiction and nonfiction. Truth and lies. You've hit on a theme that runs through most of literary work (novel, short stories, poetry). In fact, I just wrote a movie review in which I screamed about how tired I am of hearing "based on a true story" when some of the greatest truths of all times are told in fiction (Dostoevsky is one of my favorite examples.) And who knows how much fiction is inspired by real life. I suspect all of it but it would be hard to prove. (-:

Carolyn Howard-Johnson

joyful paws said...

I love bonfires! Getting lost in the mystery of them is something I enjoy doing. Great blog!

Olivia said...

I love your writing style, Jim, and as a newbie writer I have a lot to learn, so I've subscribed to your feed. I love what you wrote here about poetry, and even the comment you wrote on my blog. I've enjoyed your other posts here as well. I truly love how you put things.

I'm very glad I found your blog on this blog chain! Thank you,


Jim Murdoch said...

Nice to see so many comments on my site. Thank you all.

Olivia, I don't know how much you read but there are a few poems online at the moment and, when my main site goes live in a few weeks, I'll be posting a few of my essays on poetic technique. In time I'll get around to more but at the moment there is so much else to do laying the groundwork and getting myself known.

GC SMITH said...

I like: 'Get it down on paper while the fire is hot...[then]...rake through the ashes." It's what we all should do and what I so often fail to do.

How's by you, Jim?

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