Go, Little Book

Paul Farley - 1 December 2006

I was intrigued when Valerie Bloom (a previous incumbent writer here) bravely kept a diary, and thought I'd have a go at doing that. So people would get an idea of what it's like 'being a poet'. But I gave up after three days. I couldn't find anything in it that would interest anybody, or prove in the least bit useful to any budding poets out there. If you don't believe me, here's Day Two:

Thursday 30th November: Catch an early train to Liverpool, and find myself mentioned in the TLS while reading it on the way [don't worry, this is the only literary bit], a nice surprise. As always, I enjoy the Olive Mount cutting, eighth wonder of the world, the trainlines cut through the strata of sandstone Liverpool is built upon: so mysterious, a great entrance to a city. Arrive and take a taxi (Liverpool used to have more taxis per-capita-head than anywhere else in England: does it still?) up to the Everyman Theatre to meet a friend. The old Bistro downstairs brings back awkward memories of me at Mabel Fletcher Technical College 20 odd years ago, an art student in a big raincoat. After lunch, I go to FACT to look at an imaginary exhibition, then have a nosey round Duke Street and Seel Street: everything is changing. Go into Probe Records: Probe used to be in Button Street, I bought some of my first records there (and Woolworths) and gradually lose all track of time: I eventually buy a vinyl double album 'The Hudson Affair' by Keith Hudson, reggae producer and one time dentist. I think I've already got most tracks on it on different records, but can't resist. Then I have to go into Church Street and look for a pair of gloves (don't ask). Further wanderings - can't rmember my exact route - before it's twilight and I'm heading back to Lime Street for a train. Buy an Echo. Love the cries of the newspaper vendors in the dusk. Get met in Preston and then head north in darkness. Smoke a cigar. I've given up cigarettes a year ago, and now annoy everybody a different way, stinking cars and rooms up. Spend 'a quiet night in', read 'Paris: a Secret History' by Andrew Hussey [well, that's a second literary bit]...

See? Dull, dull, dull. And Day Two was the exciting day! Nothing of any use to other writers. No top tips. Nothing that would tell you anything about my poems - well, I mentioned Olive Mount cutting in a poem once, but I probably only recount it here because I've already responded to my fascination with it in a literary way.

How much of us can anybody know from our writing? Maybe a lot less than you'd think. Even though there's a whole industry of biography. And the culture thrives on the personal, the biographical. Poems can still be, essentially, mysterious. The urge to sit down and write often comes unbidden, and the areas tapped into while in the pleasant, distracted state of doing it can extend from what somebody just said to a poem you read four years ago to a song you heard on the radio as a child to the instructions on a seed packet... And that's just what gets you going: that's without taking into account invention, and the things you have to 'make up' to make the poem better. Aspects of us are bound, to a greater or lesser degree, to get into poems, but the mind has a life of its own, as poems should.

This is, of course, of some advantage to you. YOU CAN MAKE IT UP AS YOU GO ALONG.

DON'T WRITE WHAT YOU THINK YOU SHOULD BE WRITING, OR WHAT YOU THINK PEOPLE WOULD LIKE YOU TO WRITE. WRITE WHAT EXCITES AND ENGAGES YOU, AND STAY TRUE TO THAT.

I seem to be giving advice.

AND GO FOR POEMS, NOT THE IDEA OF BEING A POET.

In the end, a deep engagement with poems - poems you can't help going back to, for whatever reasons - will get you through. Fall in love with a poem. And don't give up on the idea of the possible poem, no matter what. I'll end with a poem. This is by Christopher Reid:

Go, Little Book

A grisly marriage
and a dead-end job;
a misconceived affair
and its botched curtailment;
no adequate solace
from parents or children;
hours spent alone
in the room upstairs
with the neighbours' television
throbbing through the wall...
somehow resulted
in a little clutch
of wryly-turned
and unemphatic lyrics,
which a Northern press
was persuaded to add
to its Autumn list,
and whose only reviewer -
an Oxford post-graduate
on the make
in 'literary London' -
was able to despatch it
in two brisk sentences,
one containing a joke.

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Glossary term

Sestina

A form that uses six six-line stanzas, each using the same six words at the end of its lines in different orders, followed by an envoi of three lines using two of those words to each line. They tend to be written in iambic pentameter, and without rhyme.

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