Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Between my finger and my thumb"

"Between my finger and my thumb"

"Are you going to be a long time?" J asks.

I am off to give a fire evacuation talk to a group of University students who are performing in the WYP bar in the coming weeks. This is as exciting as it sounds.

"Hopefully not, should take five minutes maximum". This is, of course, as long as I do not stuff up.

"When you come back could you have a read of this short story I've got a critique - I can't find anything to say about it".

"And you thought that I would rip it to pieces?"


It appears that I am cultivating the image of being the Jeremy Paxman of literature well.

I go off and do my talk and am all serious and sensible and do not make any jokes. Given that my usual briefings are of such a nature that one night Bar Boy found it perfectly acceptable to put a (thankfully empty) bucket on my head you can see how I struggle with the seriousness. All in all this is quite an achievement.

When I return I collect the short story and immediately I know what J is on about. It is a masterpiece in technical writing. Of putting the full stops and the commas in the right place. Of controlling sentence length. Of integrating the past and present. Of flights of description that flick off of the page.

Its only problem? It has absolutely no soul. It is so technically correct that its characters are match stick people, their complexities reduced to mere glib statements, painting by numbers. I feel nothing for them. But how do you pin this down in academic terms, in terms meant to aid the writer on what is an Imaginative Writing MA? To tell them to forget some of the technicality, just for a moment, and write something hard and fast, something that hurts them, something that scares them, something that will keep them awake at night. Something that I will read and believe so much that it will hurt me too.

I write a side of A4 on the piece, of dashed notes and questions I'd ask; sections I liked and the bits I didn't. I hand everything back to J as her shift finishes, complete with my assertion that the piece is technically near about spot on but has no soul.

Just as Dean enters the office J asks if I could recommend any Poets she could suggest that the writer of the other piece she has to critique should read. Dean answers for me:

"Where does she begin?"

"Beowulf?" I offer. Byron's Don Juan would be my next automatic suggestion followed pretty swiftly by Hughes's Birthday Letters. Which, I suspect, wouldn't be entirely useful. "What's the poetry like?"

"Have a look" J smiles and pulls the offending lines from her bag. I take them, probably with more enthusiasm than I should be displaying.

"You've got to read poetry aloud" I say to no one in particular. "It's the only way you can truly tell if it works".

I start reading. The language rolls around my mouth, words squelching in the way that only words in poems ever squelch.

"Oooh, she's good" I say enjoying the feel of the language on my tongue.

"That's the problem".

I nod. "There's a level I can't criticise on because I don't write poetry and I'd need to get a book out about poetic structure to comment on its technicality". But I will not be defeated. If there are approximately 75 people in Britain who buy poetry for fun then it remains that I am one of them. Heck, I got a first on a paper where I had to critique Middle English poetry; I refuse to let the 21st century stuff baffle me.

"We need to get past the surface". I'm actually disproportionately excited about this. It is a puzzle to be solved as I begin to pull the poem apart seeing if it stands up. I pull out what I love, the rhythm and the sting of the words. We start to question about some of the dialect and the actual setting of the poem which, with its reference to pound notes, is clearly out of our scope of knowledge.

"When was the word 'quid' first used?". I send it flying out not for an answer but because it is a question that needs answering if the time scheme of the poem is to be correct. And, then, because I am aware that I am starting to sound borderline insane. "You need to get on google and find that out".

I see Dean and J's faces.

"Don't feel bad about bringing it down to individual words, this is what poetry is all about. If it were to face up to academic scrutiny this is exactly what it would get". And because I'm on a roll I don't shut up.

"There's an Andrew Marvell poem which has the word "troopers" in it and it's incredibly important as a word because the poem was written in 1649 and the word itself didn't come into usage before about 1640. Academics love that sort of thing".

I say this as if it is one of the most amazing facts in the world (because I think it kind of is) even as I note my own surprise that whilst I cannot remember the code for the photocopier I can remember the origin of the word "troopers".

Dean and J just sort of look at me.

But I have that feeling again. The feeling I had a week earlier as Val and I sat for a couple of hours and dissected a couple of hundred lines of Romantic Poetry. For quite a while I was happy to be away from this, to read what I wanted to read, to wallow in beautiful trash if I so chose (though, invariably, I didn't having come to believe that I will never have the time to read all the good stuff so why should I bother with the mediocre?), to read without thinking if I so desired. But it has crept back in, I have noticed it shadowing me, noticed as only you can when it is 2.00am and you are teaching History Boy how to pronounce Old English words. Because I miss it. I miss the smell of libraries and old, dusty pages. I miss the sense of adventure, of nourishing yourself with all these ideas and people and words. I miss reaching the other side, spiking your flag in the ground and knowing that you have discovered something afresh. I miss the glorious challenge, knowing that the end result will always be beyond you but going after it anyway.

And, damn it, I was good at it.

I am good at it.

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