Flying: A Poetics (extract)


Completed in 2006, Cliff’s PhD thesis consists of a collection of poems which subsequently formed the basis of Frank Freeman’s Dancing School (Salt, 2009; KFS, 2015), a critical study entitled ‘The Poem of Process: Frank O’Hara and Tom Raworth’; and ‘Flying: A Poetics’. A revised, trimmed-down version of ‘Flying’ was subsequently published in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh: Manifestos and Unmanifestos, edited by Rupert Loydell (Salt, 2009). Here is an extract from the opening of this version:

Flying: A Poetics

It is useful to distinguish between two approaches to writing. The first is to write abouta particular subject, to record, explore, analyse or express it. The second is to write in such a way that the poem itself is the experience, or the subject. It is the second approach that I am concerned with here.

‘In writing, it is not a matter of a certain material which is there, as a fixed thing, upon which the writing feeds and works. The act of writing also serves to nourish the material. When we speak of something, we affect it. It isn’t quite the same. As we cannot altogether ‘will’ what we would say’ (Turnbull, 1962: 27).

The process is improvisatory: to write without a set idea of where the poem is heading. As if the poem has a life, or energy, of its own.

‘I just get hung on the energy. Like the way the energy goes through it’ (Raworth, 1972: 12).

The poem attracts material to itself. Or, to put it another way, during writing, material finds its way in. The poem is the important thing at this stage and the language of the poem, whatever is going on in the environment, whatever thoughts occur during the writing (including memories) can dictate the direction.

Memories are stories that we tell ourselves.[1]

Though memory can appear as substantial as what is perceived as ‘real’ by the senses.[2]

Any experience prior to the writing of the poem is ultimately irrelevant to the poem, though the poem can ‘contain’ or allude to dozens of experiences.

A poem does not have to depend on the idea or experience which may have given rise to it; the idea or experience can ‘merely’ be the starting point.

‘The poem is more than the poet’s intention. The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know…. Words are ambiguous…. The poem is not a handing out of the same packet to everyone, as it is not a thrown-down heap of words for us to choose the bonniest. The poem is the replying chord to the reader. It is the reader’s involuntary reply’ (Graham, 1946: 380-381).

Writing ‘about’ something invariably changes it.

The poem is provisional. You start off saying something and language gets involved and, as soon as it does, the aeroplane’s hijacked, the door’s ripped off and passengers and cargo are sucked out screaming or sleeping

Or flying.[3]

[1]And memories are hardly reliable: two people can remember a shared experience differently; memories can change in the light of subsequent experience; a subsequent experience can call into question the veracity of a memory.

[2] This notion is implicit in ‘Baldwin Road’: ‘the other side of the coal bunker we built and demolished’ suggests the substantiality of something that no longer exists except in memory (Yates, 2004: 28).

[3] The flying metaphor is an attempt to describe the sensation that the poem has taken on a life of its own, a capacity identified by Peter Sansom as characterising ‘genuine’ poems: ‘poems that have their own purpose, not just the writer’s’ (Sansom, 1999: 2). I believe that Coleridge’s concept of organic form is implicit in Sansom’s thinking here, as is evident in his account of ‘authentic writing’: ‘My feeling is that the most authentic writing comes of working with more than the “conscious” thought, when the process is organic, when it relies upon – in Coleridge’s phrase – the “shaping spirit of the imagination”. This is still using devices, but using them instinctively and prompted by the language, the patterns a poem naturally wants to follow and develop’ (Sansom, 1994: 27).