At this time of the year all the writers teaching in the department at the university are invited to deliver two lectures, one on a work or writer who has influenced them, and one on the particular work of their own so influenced.
With me, the first lecture is on Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', the poem influenced being 'Metro'.
The first lecture is about much more than the Disused Shed, it ranges through Mahon's poetry of the time, and concentrates on a few key ideas: the mushroom prisoners ("Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!"), the idea of de-objectified desire ("What should they do there but desire?"); the idea of community as something closed and demanding; the idea of the damaged centre (bombed Belfast) together with the idea of a possibly desirably bombed centre and how it relates to the periphery; the idea of a transferred loyalty to some aspect of Europe; and aesthetic judgment versus and/or combined with political judgment.
On all these matters I feel, and did feel back in the mid eighties when I wrote 'Metro', considerable resonance with Mahon, and some of the same themes run through my poem.
The second lecture is, necessarily, about 'Metro' (a poem that, for me, has certain dull connecting passages, but also some of my best, most vivid writing), but it is also a chance to say something about the nature of poetry and how poetry works with narrative.
The first lecture is more or less scripted, and indeed a touch long if I were to read the whole text, so I need to cut and improvise as I go which is always a slightly anxious procedure, but the second is impromptu with a few headings as guideline. I feel, and always have felt, much more comfortable with the second type of procedure. It means that if something occurs to me as I speak I can weave it in as it comes.
The image that emerged out of the second lecture this time has been developing in a half-conscious manner for some time, and is related to the post below on Kertész. In any case I kept returning to it as the controlling image. It was of the lyric poem as the capturing of a landscape or event as lit by lightning. For a brief moment or so you see everything, and everything has a significance that is not entirely clear. It is memorable. It closes. In that respect it is like the movement of a camera with a shutter. It's dark, the light floods in, then it's dark again.
This is not necessarily the mode of composition, of course, it is, rather, the mode of seeing that the mode of composition seeks to perfect. (By the same analogy, poems are photographs, novels are movies.) It explains why poems do or do not work. The lightning-lit landscape might be incomplete. Or there is, simply, no lightning at all. Lightning is not the same as natural daylight. The photo looks somewhat fantastical, but the electricity runs through us, and one can feel its approach the way we sometimes feel thunder approaching, through our stomachs,
This doesn't mean I have turned mystical about the art, but the effect is distinctly there in the best poems and we miss it when it isn't. The lightning effect is not mystical either: it comes about through the perceived sense of connection between language and the sense of reality. The connection feels electric. The two poles of what we say and what there is seem, briefly, to coincide. Then it's over, the light goes out, and language is just the stuff I am writing now.
Straight after the lecture (plus two brief tutorials) off to Cambridge for a reading at Michaelhouse in Trinity Street. We park in the Backs and walk through. Cambridge looks as idyllic as ever. I remember visiting it - we lived about thirty miles away - in my twenties and early thirties, book hunting. It was always someone else's idyll of course. It was the kind of privilege I couldn't even begin to resent because why, I thought, should anyone resent beautiful places or intelligence or education? It would be a privilege to be there, but someone has to be there, and, as Larkin said about Coventry, it wasn't the place's fault. Not entirely anyway. It simply wasn't my world, that's all, and never would be. I was an art school boy via the dreaded Harrow Tech, teaching in a school. The Idyll was Elsewhere in a land populated by Eloi. Needless to say I have been to many of the Cambridge colleges since then but the sense of being on other people's property has never left me. I am charming. They are charming. The weather continues, charming.
I read with young poet Kathryn Daszkiewicz some of whose work can be found on that link, as also here. She's good. The audience includes a number of scientists. They are very nice in that slightly spacy Cambridge way. Two young female scientists, one from India (I think) the other from Albania are enthusiastic and come up with New and Collecteds for signing. Aha, I think, my constituency! My patchwork good people.
C drives there, I drive back and just make it, yawning heavily in the last half hour. Full moon the previous night. Bad disturbed sleep.
Via the genius of David Morley, a good article I missed by A A Gill in The Times. It is what poetry needs most: enlightened enthusiasm from those without a personal stake in it. Unlike, I suspect, the gentleman commenting below Gill's article, who writes:
The BBC uses the term poet to mean anyone who has no reason to be on the airwaves. Poetasters and doggerel merchants all get called 'poet'. Nobody on a poetry programme ever says 'this is pretty awful'; they all nod reverendly at the emperor's clothes
I smell a disappointed poet. The terms 'poetasters', 'doggerel merchants' and 'emperor's clothes' are a clue. I suspect he means writers of light verse who are a pleasure to the nation. Nowt wrong with light verse when it is well written. It is still delight. Nor are there - unlike among the commodity dealer and production merchant community of visual art - any emperors. Check the condition of the poet emperors' shoes. Or indeed of mine.