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Paul Mills on his own work

Poets I Go Back To
In 1968, my second year at university, I read two or three books (two of them poetry) that influenced my thinking and writing for at least two decades .......
(read more)

On Dinosaur Point
Certain moments, hardly noticed at the time, can in retrospect seem to have had direct designs upon the future, opening up perspectives, emotional and physical, into a new space........
(read more)

On The President of England
The day you woke up unable to find words,
only repeat, What's going on dad?
I took you first to the doctor who said cannabis.......
(read more)


(1) Poets I Go Back To

In 1968, my second year at university, I read two or three books (two of them poetry) that influenced my thinking and writing for at least two decades. Whether the influences have worn off I don`t know; maybe they never do. I go back to the actual texts quite rarely. I go back to the shape they left in my mind very often. The first is Helen Gardner`s anthology The Metaphysical Poets , the second is Ted Hughes` Wodwo – partly for its links with the fourteenth century poem Gawain and the Green Knight which was written, allegedly, in an area of the Pennines near Macclesfield, twenty miles or so from where I grew up. Wodwo, a kind of revisiting of the landscapes of the Gawain poet, was also a new way of writing free verse, while from The Metaphysical Poets I learned, among other things, about stanzas and how they work, what they can do. Its pages were full of them – Marvell`s `The Garden` , Donne`s `Nocturnal Upon St Lucies` Day`. The other book was C.G.Jung`s study of tribal culture and its importance in psychoanalysis: Modern Man in Search of a Soul. If I could, I would explain how it was that these three books (four counting Gawain ) had somehow got tangled up in my mind. Maybe I can explain. I certainly couldn`t at the time. I was studying literature at Edinburgh University in the late sixties, early seventies. Edinburgh had something to do with it too – a sawn-off city, hanging loose in the wind: its tenements, the castle rock, volcanic hills – all somehow unfinished. I certainly felt decapitated from England . Travelling north three times a year (Gawain`s journey was northward too) was as if the Green Knight had issued me with a challenge. I was travelling into a new world: bleak, flinty, exhilarating.

The poet Bernard O`Donohoe commented recently at a reading that as you go north the countryside changes gradually but consistently, so that you get hints of Scotland in north Lancashire, then even more hints in Northumbria. I felt this to be exactly true. I felt the Metaphysical Poets were travelling north too – metaphysically speaking:

My love is of a birth as rare
As `tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Upon impossibility.

Magnanimous despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne`er have flown
But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended Soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.
(from `The Definition of Love`, Marvell)

Those iron wedges materialised for me in the Scottish border country. It`s not just that we know this poet is having a hard time – worse than that, the tone is self-mocking. The terms - `Soul… Eternity` are on the way out. He knows it but can`t explain himself either. It`s as if there`s a needle in the poem flickering inconstantly but with increased regularity in the direction of the modern world. Its other direction, with less and less regularity, flickers towards some idyllic alternative, some Heaven, some harmony, and this is what the Metaphysical Poets are like – they flicker, continuously this way and that, while knowing which way the needle will ultimately point. Something is happening – something to do with science and the facts of a viciously material universe, growing in volume and noise – which is smashing up their high spiritual-aesthetic standards, their `hope`. They are on a journey too, and are having their precious spiritual-religious heads cut off. Partly they welcome this (Donne welcomes it more than the rest, perhaps, at times, or tries to find a latter-day re-connnection). Partly they are in a state of despair. Donne certainly was, as we know from his sermons.

The irony is that anyone who stares into that abyss always invents a chimera, a Ghostly Something (or somebody) who represents its opposite, an escape. This Something could be a lover – real or imagined – someone with dew on his brow ( Vaughan ) or the `little room` where lovers are loving (Donne). The best of the Metaphysical Poets – Donne, Marvell, Vaughan, Herbert (these are the poets in the book I go back to) continuously try to mix the material universe with an immanent spiritual reality. They will not have it that these two should part. They will not have it because if separation should occur, they would be on the side of the material. They know this, and that is why they fear the outcome so much, why they have such struggles with their conscience, and why we admire them. Their prayers should suffice, but prayers do not suffice – that is why there are poems, why there are stanzas standing there like little palisades of safety and defence – like `rooms`. These poets all declare allegiance to the material; they all admit to chaos, death, and what follows, just as they also celebrate things as they are, the simple objects of our common surroundings. The stanzas in Helen Gardner`s anthology are those of our first true modern poets.

So what has free verse to do with it? I remember the day I bought a copy of Wodwo at James Thinn`s bookshop in George Street. I`d enjoyed Hughes` first two books – all written in stanzas. I thought – Well let`s see about this one then, and took it home. I didn`t like it. For about three months I resented its long straggling lines, its untidiness. Then, it suddenly got hold of me.

Ghosts, they are ghost crabs.
They emerge
An invisible disgorging of the sea`s cold
Over the man who strolls along the sands.
They spill inland, into the smoking purple
Of our woods and towns – a bristling surge
Of tall and staggering spectres
Gliding like shocks through water.
Our walls, our bodies, are no problem to them.
Their hungers are homing elsewhere.
We cannot see them or turn our minds from them.
Their bubbling mouths, their eyes
In a slow mineral fury
Press through our nothingness where we sprawl on our beds,
Or sit in our rooms. Our dreams are ruffled maybe,
Or we jerk away to the world of our possessions
With a gasp, in a sweat burst, brains jamming blind
Into the bulb light. Sometimes, for minutes, a sliding
Thickness of silence
Presses between us.
(from `Ghost Crabs` - Wodwo )

This spoke to my youthful anxiety, in exile, and to my feeling about rooms and landscape-atmosphere. It was England , but with Scotland – or ` Scotland ` - superimposed. The needle flickered again between the two. I remember reading the poem to a group of post-graduates, who found it `revolting`, as many readers probably still do. It seemed to me amusing, even while it made my hair stand on end. It would be nothing without its actual words – the `smoking purple` of woods and towns – so exact yet casual; the blunt summary: `we cannot see them or turn our minds from them`; and the question of how eyes `press` through nothingness: a drama with its roots deep in the language, and in some of the poems able to bring about what I then thought of (and still do) as new events in language – the long sentence that opens `Full Moon and Little Frieda` - Nobody had ever invented one like it. One of the few poems with a regular shape, `Pibroch` haunted me not just because it conjured a highland landscape. It was something to do with the word `occasionally` in the poem`s second stanza.

I felt, if I could write some poems like those in Wodwo and some like Metaphysical poems, and write about my journey – which was also about growing up and out of England – then I could get hold of what poetry was about – not just writing poems but being inside certain kinds of experience. The Jung book was something to do with that too – a sense of what the word `modern` perhaps signified, though to be fair to my younger self it was the first book I`d read on the subject. That point when things suddenly flared in different directions, and lit up more than I`d ever realised existed, was, I emphasise, at least in part, a discovery of language, that there are things just simple words can do if you put them together in the right way. And there were other occasions for this discovery: Larkin and from there back to Hardy`s poems, then Lawrence (who for a time made regular stanzas impossible!) then William Carlos Williams...

From The North, [ date?]


(2) On Dinosaur Point

Certain moments, hardly noticed at the time, can in retrospect seem to have had direct designs upon the future, opening up perspectives, emotional and physical, into a new space. Remembering how I began to write this book, at the back of my mind is a field of dry grass and orange-yellow Californian poppies on the Pacific coast ten miles south of Santa Cruz , USA . This piece of ground doesn`t actually appear in the book itself, but its scent, its softly calcifying, wind-blown gulleys with ocean beyond are the atmosphere in which these poems first started to breathe. The landscape itself is still and uneventful, while the poems themselves are anything but. The experiences which began with a family group walking across this field near their house involved far more than the distant surf, the scent of sunny grass and eucalyptus. Nor could these people have known what changes were poised at the time to strike. The poems are fragments flying up out of the ground, as if from some invisible explosion. They originate from a place which offered no sign. That one or two experiences can change people not just immediately but years afterwards is extraordinary, yet most story-telling nourishes this assumption. The aim of this book is to make the explosion visible, not just lost in the air.

Summer, 1999


(3) On 'The President Of England' a section of the long poem '21/2001' in Voting For Spring From Not In So Many Words, The Poetry Business Writing School Anthology, Smith Doorstop, 2004.

The President of England

The day you woke up unable to find words,
only repeat, What's going on dad?
I took you first to the doctor who said cannabis
could have got through the membrane softened
by meningitis exhaustion into your brain,
that it would pass (maybe)
then having tried all day to bring you out of it
drove you that afternoon to the A & E.
Could you count back from 100 in 3s? (you could).
Did this mean you would be granted asylum
in the land of the sane?
Not necessarily, we would have to wait.
And who is the President of England?
asked the locum, a young German, handsome
and with a still-concerned nonchalance when we laughed,
and am-I-supposed-to-know-these-things smile.
Come again, you said to him, get real!
So we pronounced you you and brought you home.
Two days later your mind slipped from its ledge
down, down. We took you in, screaming for life,
for your newly emerged adult life,
twisting and furious. This is the only way
you'll get it back, I shouted, delivering you
to the doctors for days, maybe for weeks, for life.
It was your twenty first birthday,
In just days the Presidents of England and America
launched their attack and search, while the terrorist
hidden in his folded mountain cave
kept to himself the map and the legend.

This poem was one of the first to be written in a sequence of twenty one poems (at the latest count) on the subject of a short but intense period of mental illness suffered by my daughter in the autumn of 2001. The bulk of the sequence was written during the time of the Poetry Business Writing School , beginning the following July. This sequence came to be known among those who offered comments as the 'Lucy poems', a convenient label but misleading in that, apart from her name, the Lucy of Wordsworth ('She dwelt among the untrodden ways… a maid whom there were none to praise and very few to love') bares no resemblance whatsoever to this one, and could hardly be more opposite. The only connection lies with the speaker's intimations – his fear of imminent loss, and state of shock.

To read this poem (so I imagine) leaves the impression (so I imagine) that the writer isn`t making anything up. This, he says, is what happened, more or less. A tendency in some recent contemporary poems is to write as if the speaker tells about events that could be real or fictional – which, we can`t be sure; the boundaries are erased. In `The President Of England`, the speaker speaks without such easy escape routes or audience-calming measures. During a discussion of the poem at one of the Writing School sessions no one raised any objections to its strongly autobiographical subject matter except to say that maybe it was a mistake to use such a localised reference as the invasion of Afghanistan – something that perhaps would in time lose its significance. I made no changes to this however. On the autobiographical issue I am aware that, especially when writing about anything as complex as mental illness, the gain in specificity can only be achieved at the expense of privacy. A writer would know nothing about it in that amount of detail – or feel its impact with that intensity unless it had happened to them or their close relatives. What then follows is a problem of disguise, displacement or evasion, but in certain circumstances it might be possible, especially when the story itself is so vivid, to put strategies aside and just get on with telling it as it is.

Even so, what is the story here? Any telling surely involves distortion. If the illness itself demonstrates distortion, who will restore order, supply perspective, predict an outcome? In the poem the speaker is placing a lot of trust in doctors and psychiatrists. The question his daughter first puts to him - `What`s going on?` - he automatically re-addresses to them. Perhaps this is what most of us would do. But of course there`s no answer, or only one that by the end of the poem lies with the word ` terrorist` - that is: threat and uncertainty.

Since her period of illness corresponded closely with the unfolding sequence of major events beginning with 9/11, the fact that I associate these with our own private experience was probably inevitable. Both appeared completely out of nowhere and changed everything. Both pointed to the fragility of things previously assumed to be wholly secure. `What`s going on?` the question regularly popping up in the middle of TV soap opera scripts applies to the mind and to the human future. The story in each case is a struggle to find out what the story is , (will we, can we, ever be certain?) possibly also the struggle to avoid knowing. The story of the poem`s composition may be equally precarious. So much depends on the comment by that locum in that hospital. Had he asked `Who is the Prime Minister?` the logic of suggestion would never have triggered those last lines.

The link between mental illness and Art expression is too complex a subject for this short commentary, but one common symptom might be that a sense of proportion has been lost, and that this loss is deliberate and creative (for the artists) or pathological. In some cases it could be both. The artist sheds the prescriptions of normal thinking , gets interested in other connections, in images, in the unconscious, in disproportion, while the patient suffers these things involuntarily and resorts to patterns of behaviour closer to childhood, has to re-learn the coded language of adult interactions – most of which most of us take for granted. The fluent exchange between world and mind somehow ceases to operate, and speech distortion becomes one of the first recognisable signs that this has happened. The phrase `get real` obviously refers to forms of distortion that stop a person from being in the same kind of world as everybody else. So when the patient tells the doctor `get real` - and we share her view – we take this as proof of recovery of proportion, of the fact that hospitals are no longer necessary in her case – untrue, as it turned out. The tone of the poem helps this humour along – the sense that we can understand proportion and disproportion and enjoy the difference. The comic tone seems to me a vital element here, making the poem sociable to its readers. It shows how this bonding works between the people in the poem, then how it collapses.

he poem-sequence goes on to record rapid recovery, but whether the `story` can ever be recovered – one replete with explanations, causes and effects – is another thing. Writers know their limitations, as do psychiatrists – or one hopes they do. Lucy recovers, but the world does not. The outcome is an even worse disaster . As a friend commented after reading the sequence: `The larger neurosis in the public world is evoked in an appropriate context for the private disaster – though the personal crisis resolves itself in a way the public one has not yet done. I was surprised to recognise references to the public world in 25% of the poems`. I was surprised too. The references to it in `The President Of England` amount to a lot more than 25% but I still think the poem gets it right – the right balance. It seems to me a poem that is both personal and public and sociable – the kind I wish I`d written more of.

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