I have been writing critically for WAR (The Wales Arts Review) since 2012. When I decided that writing poetry wasn’t just going to be just a hobby, it was going to be my way of life, I also decided that it was the only kind of writing I was ever going to do. I’d read somewhere, that after completing ‘ The Goddess of Complete Being’, Ted Hughes considered the internal negative pressure this shift of focus (from poetry to prose) laid upon his poetry-self, was the only possible explanation for him developing cancer. I’m most definitely not saying that if you write prose over poetry (as the poet) you’ll contract a life-threatening illness. But this idea acted as a powerful metaphor. It encouraged me to focus only on the path of poetry – to meld and marble the gift I have. To fine tune it, and respect it by giving it all my time, at the expense of everything else.
But you see, this level of concentrated ‘reverence’ if you like, for one form doesn’t really work. Hughes wrote letters; crafted reviews. In fact it was reading his book ‘Winter Pollen’ and his analysis of Baskin’s Hanged Man, that drew me into critical writing in the first place.
Critical writing (of poetry) allows you to take a step back. I learn more about language when reviewing someone else’s work than at any other time. Because I know I need to be creative myself. The lines have to sing, like music, they need to entice, deliver, and inspire the reader. Either in the direction of the book, or into a conversation about it. Critical reviews need to reflect the urgency and brilliance (or at times non-brilliance) of the work I’m surmising; be as quick off the mark as my initial reaction (then go deeper of course) so it feels real. Academic therefore’s and whatnot’s simply don’t cut it, for me. There’s an element of craftsmanship here much like that of poetry writing, there’s honesty and then there’s ‘creative’ honesty. And they’re not quite the same. Basically, on one level at least, it’s hard to make honesty sound good. As a critical writer you have to answer to that. And it’s always a real challenge. Always a good number of hours spent.
In observing other people’s work, you also get better at critiquing your own. There’s an old Shamanic saying, which I’ll paraphrase – the further away you travel from someone, the closer you become to understanding them. Poems are as rich and complex as the individual – and therefore require space. They need time to settle; and sleep in the dust. Some even need to be forgotten before their final potential can be wholly, and fully realised. There was a time in my early twenties, when I became so immersed in the tick of my own brain, and the lilt of my own voice, that space from myself was the only thing I could do to breathe. On impulse, I expressed my initial interest in writing for WAR via a very humble email – ‘I’m young I want to do this, will you help me?’ sort of thing. I was lucky enough to be taken on, and I continue to write for them today.
Every time I write a review for WAR, I feel as though I’m being being given a rare opportunity. I only partly studied journalism at University (my major was Philosophy). I don’t carry a PhD, and I’m not a language specialist – in the traditional sense of the word. But I do know something about words. How they fit, how they resonate. I work largely on an intuitive level, and therefore try and ‘feel’ through someone else’ s work (as opposed to apply myself to it manually ) in a human and knowledgeable way. I know how to tell a story, and I know the differences between storytelling through prose and through poetry – how repressive and, at times, spatially and linguistically isolating the latter process can be. I love reading poetry, and time after time, the editors at WAR have given me the opportunity to let others know that I’m here – that I care about this. That I can do this. That I’m honest, and supportive. That above all things, I love and respect my craft.
I’ve written this blog to commend two things. One, the fact that WAR selected my review of Philip Gross’s ‘Lovesongs of Carbon’ as one of their top reviews of 2016. Thank you so much for this. And two, ‘The Incantations of the Wild’ – both the review, but also the spiritual meaning of the phrase. This is where we all need to go – or more to the point, what we all need to listen for, in ourselves.
Reading this I can see where I always wanted to get to. I hope I’m on my way.
OUTER MUSIC AND INNER MUSIC: THE INCANTATIONS OF THE WILD
‘There is a passage by Edward Thomas about the sea. In it he describes a ‘small flitting bird’, offering up its music against the ‘slow, colourless dawn, dark, cold and immense.’ (Collected Poems, 1967.) To me landscape poetry is just that – if nothing else, an offering. As much as it is a dialogue, it is an act of giving something back, returning a sacred part of oneself to the great ‘unknown’. Landscape poetry (if one should call it that) is always more than just poetry about the land, and the term itself doesn’t quite do it justice. It is an actual physical process, one that demands something exhaustive of the person and, one might concede, of the elements too. Whatever magical happening takes place there is certainly an exchange, a vocal and visual reincarnation of those archaic human shadows – the storyteller, the wise mother, the hunter, the naked child. Those ancient people who crawled for miles and miles into the bellies of caves to transfer their stories onto the walls, to capture that same, fleeting sense of awe that we continue to feel of the world. I think George Seferis puts it best, in his poem from Mythistormia:
‘And a soul/is to know itself/if it must look/into its own soul’.