Asked to explain the secrets of his craft, the alchemist would wrap his cloak more tightly and withdraw to his tower in silence. The mountebank, however, holding his phial of coloured water high, might become loquacious about herbs gathered by moonlight on the shores of Arabia.
I feel uncomfortable talking about how I write my poems. I would prefer to say nothing. Saying anything at all incurs the risk of becoming a charlatan. However, I was recently persuaded to contribute an article on this to launch a new series of 'confessions' for an online poetry journal Underfoot – at https://underfootpoetry.wordpress.com/ - who also wanted to publish four poems from my book The Human Hive.
In seven parts, The Human Hive looks at life through work: looking at people down the ages and around the globe as they go about their daily lives, drawing parallels in time and place, finding contrasts, worrying away at what it means to be human.
Of these four poems, two are ‘bookends’. Lying outside the main sections, they are complementary sonnets: Work (a Noun) and To Dream (a Verb). [Poems featured below this commentary]
The first of these has had a couple of outings at poetry readings. It was read on local radio shortly after the book was published, but not by me: the late Bart Wolffe, a writer from Africa but living in London, chose to read this during a half-hour slot on Croydon Radio and I felt deeply honoured. Much later I read it myself at Café Writers in Norwich – the first time I had ever read at an open mic session. I suppose I’m fond of it. While Work (a Noun) looks into the deep past, To Dream (a Verb) is forward-looking, but both I believe touch on essential human qualities: imagination and endeavour perhaps.
The other two poems come from the heart of the book. Part 1 has ten poems celebrating archetypal forms of work: hunting, planting vegetables, building a home, waiting at table, making tools and so on. Fishing is practically universal and timeless and so Raiding the Deep had to be written. As I have never been a fisherman it required a combination of research and imagination. The central picture, however, of the sardine fleet drawing upon Portugal’s shore – well, that’s a memory, it’s something my wife and I witnessed on holiday years ago. Like other poems in the book, I don’t see it as merely a description of people at work. I hoped that this one would capture something of the exhilaration, the romance, and daring of certain kinds of human activity, the spirit of being alive. You will be able to decide whether I have come close enough to that.
The fourth poem, The Breakfast Meeting is Heartily Loathed, comes from a later Part of the book about international travel – that cosmopolitan set of business people, academics and diplomats. Their lives are far from the daily round for most readers and yet their wary interaction with foreign contacts has been a part of human society since the earliest days, as I hope the poem shows. I was able to draw on many years in the British civil service during which I made trips to Brussels, Paris and other EU capitals as well as to Washington, Tokyo and places in between. The breakfast meeting (horrible invention!) was well known to me, but I hope that the poem offers the reader rather more than that.
Other Parts of The Human Hive mine our emotions: there are poems about hope and disappointment, comradeship and betrayal, exhilaration and tedium, and so on. There’s a long poem about workers who keep the city going throughout the night. We can experience many emotions through work, and work helps to establish who we are in society.
That then introduces my four poems and, because I am delaying having to open up on how I wrote them, next to a quick word about an easier subject: how they came to be published. This was wholly unexpected. Almost a godsend.
In 2014 I received an email from someone who introduced herself as the founder of an independent press: Deborah Bennison, of Bennison Books. She had been reading poems I had posted on my blog (Poetry from John Looker at www.johnstevensjs.wordpress.com) and offered to publish a collection for me. I was delighted, and also relieved because I had been slowly putting together a collection of poems which followed the same theme and belonged together. The blog wasn’t adequate; they needed a book. Deborah Bennison was a skilled and tactful editor, gently questioning my intentions here and there. The Human Hive was finally published in January 2015 and Bennison Books, who is a most supportive publisher, went on to promote the book through their website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and newsletter, eventually submitting copies to the Poetry Library whose editorial committee accepted it into the national collection. The book has sold modestly but more than I had expected, and has reached ten different countries – a testament to the internet age. The publication has also led to other opportunities.
I see that I can no longer put off giving an account of how the poems were written. The key point I suppose is: very slowly. I usually take months over a poem and generally have a dozen or so in the draft.
This reminds me of Howard Hodgkin, the British artist. There was a television programme some years ago which showed him at work in his studio. He was celebrated for his abstract paintings in which colour and tone were all-important. Stacks of his canvasses were propped on the floor leaning against the walls with only their backs showing. There might be one underway on an easel. From day to day he would turn a canvass around and study it, reconsider the colour and composition, and from time to time would take one up and work on it some more, prior to placing it back on the floor, facing the wall. In this manner, his collection grew and each painting went through a long slow evolution.
That is how it is with me, and how it was with each of these four poems. You might be surprised to learn that it was the two sonnets – the shorter poems – that underwent the greatest revision. However, I see that as natural because the sonnet form, still popular after six hundred years, succeeds because of its immense compression, plus the ‘turn’ or trigger point.
Work (a Noun) for example was written and rewritten over three years. It began as a totally different poem in free verse based partly on memories of working as a student on a market garden and partly on some flints which emerged in my own vegetable patch (which I believe to be ancient tools, although my wife laughs at that!). I wasn’t happy with the poem. It remained on my computer for months and was amended from time to time before finally being trashed. It simply wasn’t convincing.
Then I had an entirely fresh idea and rewrote the poem, as a sonnet, more or less as you see it now, a totally different time and place and a wholly new scenario. But still, it needed revision. It stayed stashed, as it were, with its face to the wall and was looked at from time to time. One day I felt sure that the closing couplet had to be jettisoned and reworked from scratch – after which I had a radically different ending and in consequence, the whole poem took on a new purpose. It was almost as if it had been waiting for me to unearth it while I wasted time on false starts and dead ends. Even that newly discovered couplet changed a bit over the coming weeks as I tried out various images of human inventions, aiming for a suitable sequence, the right rhythm, the best metaphors.
I could say more but already I feel awkward at having attempted so much. Perhaps I’ll simply add that since the publication of The Human Hive in early 2015 I have been working on a second book with a different theme. The poems have all been drafted and some have already been published in journals and anthologies in the UK, the USA, India, and Australia, but most of the poems remain stacked against the wall, taken out and reviewed in turn, the revisions becoming progressively slighter.
If you don’t mind, I’d like my cloak back now please and the key to my tower.
Work (A Noun)
Old English: weorc, werc, wurc, wirc, worc, work: that which distinguishes the human from other primates
Let us start at the beginning. Come closer
and we’ll focus on a detail: two hands,
rough with bitten-down nails but agile, strong,
striking one stone against another; knapping.
Step back and see the whole man, in skins, squatting,
a ring of small children, thin dogs and beyond –
on the brow of this hill – earthworks and huts
and barefooted people carrying, sifting.
He stands. He weighs one flint in his hand, frowning,
then swinging his arm high he sends that stone
arching through the air to the trees below.
And it’s spinning still. Changing shape. Becoming
a knife, a pot, the wheel, the printing press,
railways, nuclear fission and the rule of law.
Raiding the Deep
Let’s spin the globe, spin it towards the sun –
slowly now – we’re looking for a likely place,
a place where the sea or the ocean touch the land
and men have always put to sea in boats,
have moored their boats or dragged them on the shore
with heavy limbs after the homeward run.
Here will do,
here where the wild Atlantic batters the coast
and the heaving tide has carried a fragile fleet
up on to Portugal’s sand. The boats are beached
and the sardine catch laid out in boxes for the buyers,
and men with wide-brimmed metal hats
will carry the fish on their heads, salt water dripping,
up to the trucks and out of view.
Soon the men will hear how much they’ve earned.
A decent trip? Not bad.
The catch? So so.
Not as much as in the glory days
but the weather held, the fish were there, the gear behaved
and (although this isn’t said) they all returned.
Spin the world,
and find the trawlers active in early morning
off Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England.
Spin it and in the darkness look for vessels
ranged around the Pacific ring of fish,
tuned to their weather warnings, studying sonar,
watching the stars in shoals expiring slowly
and the depths putting on new colour,
as the day – a day of promise –
The Breakfast Meeting is Heartily Loathed
The breakfast meeting, we know, is heartily loathed
except of course when it’s loved.
Having eaten already, and early, he comes to the table
focused and fresh and with radar scanning for trouble.
He ensures that the table’s well-covered, and slightly too small,
but, we don’t need our papers! he tells his guests with a smile
and since we are friends – good friends, he likes to opine –
let’s begin with a toast and a generous glass of champagne!
This man could sell pants to a mermaid. But now he must face
(and he knows it) commensurate force:
before him is the CEO who has seen it all,
who comes with a smile …
… this is the Merchant from Samarkand
whose life is the market for silks of every kind …
this is no youth fresh from his rites of passage but rather
the Tribal Chief whose very pulse is trade along the river …
To Dream (A Verb)
Middle English of Germanic origin, probably related to Old English drēam – “joy, music”.
And we’ll close with a big picture, the widest.
Looking at the night sky with modern eyes
we find, beyond the haze of urban lighting,
a handful of the brighter planets and stars,
fragments of half-remembered constellations.
Now, staring down at a screen in our hands
we’re shown what we seek: the lost Milky Way,
myriads of densely packed moments of light.
Plus, something startling but taken for granted:
the presence up there above our bowed heads
of man-made satellites in their mapped orbits,
all software and shiny exoskeletons –
and a probe flung out into deeper space
on course to intercept a falling star.