Saturday, 5 September 2009

Whitehaven 3: Wastwater

Tony takes me and his son Philip to Wast Water (or Wastwater). The language echoes are powerful: Vast water, waste water, was water, washed water...

It is misty, with a trace of har, that fine wet mist that doesn't feel like rain, not quite, but you end up wet all the same. Wastwater is the deepest lake in the region. A man dropped the body of his wife into it, carefully wrapped, and it took thirty years to find her - what is more, in a rather well-preserved condition. It is very deep.

On the far side from where we stand, that is at the low shore at the right of this photograph, rises the sheer jagged face of slate cliff you see on the left, a grey collapse into silence out of the mist shrouded jags or teeth at the top. I would not call it beautiful. I would say it is better than beautiful. It is forbidding and gaunt and friendless. Are there fish here? Some say no. Tony says he comes here when he is troubled and he forgets his trouble.

Maybe the sheer mercilessness of the view on a day like that eclipses any trouble we might have.

Later we are in a cafe talking about poetry. He says it is about emotion and putting thoughts into words. I tell him poetry is like the water between the low shore and the cliff. It doesn't explain anything. It is something, not the explanation of it. You know that like the valley, the lake and the cliff it is a product of some form of glaciation, but that knowing it is so is not the same as the experience of the lake. The experience of the lake is being in the lake. Or imagining being in the lake. The lake is language and it stands between us and the cliff. It is cold and forbidding but we have to move in by way of the imagination because it overwhelms and moves us. Wastwater is a poetic experience. It is not the Picturesque, not the Sublime: it is nothing fancy. It is not a literary category. It is the poetry we all know and understand instinctively. To read poetry is not to parse it or analyse it, though we do parse and analyse because we must, because we have parsing and analysing brains; poetry is the water that laps in our guts. Poets work with that water. You understand poems by immersing yourself in them. Language and imagination are the water. Understand that - and anybody can understand it because anybody can stand by Wasswater and feel the water and the cliff - and you are on the way to understanding poetry. You dip your toe in and feel. You parse and analyse it, you have to do that too, but it is essentially the shock of water we are trying to produce when we write. That shock is always new. For a while at least.

Sir Nicholas Sekers, Oliver Messel. The sea. The coal. The methane. Wastwater. Vast water. Waste water. Washed water. Was water.

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