The Railway Bridge
after a painting by Brooke Farrar
There he stands, the well-known figure
Of the total stranger with his back
Towards me, leaning on the parapet
Of the secure suburban bridge.
He stares along the permanent, white
Summer rails, the expanding iron thoughts
That curve into perspective, signalling
The distance and himself, and bringing both
Gently to one another ; while the local train
Emerges like a visitation from the dark
Tomb of the provincial tunnel, bearing
An ascending avalanche of steam like hosts
Of leaping angels lingering upon the green
Deserted heaven of the country afternoon.
They come with gifts – the simple hills, the trees,
Fences, fields of hay, the hedges and the flowers,
The sirens sighing in the telegraph, and the horizon’s dust.
The train that punctually roars between his legs
And seems to scald his immobility in vain, reveals
The secret locomotion of his gaze. For he
Is what I wish to be : the ordinary man, spectator
Simplifying time’s complexity with sure stance
And quiet’s solid affirmations. He is the open door
Through which the landscape moves at our desire.
We feel together for a moment this chance
Reconciliation of loneliness and man, the humble fire
Making the stone that builds our common bridge
Like love miraculously turn, and briefly tremble.
From A Correct Compassion (1952)
When looking at a poem, something carved momentarily out of an ongoing process, I always start by reminding myself of the question: How does one read a poem? How does one tune in to a poem? Here, first of all, perhaps, we respond to the dramatic gesture (‘There he stands!’): we are asked to look at the lonely figure who, seemingly, just happens to be leaning on the parapet of a bridge with his back towards the poet who can, if he chooses, take himself to have been fobbed off in some way; as a result of his life experiences, the feeling of being shunned was part of James Kirkup’s personality; this early poem seems prophetic. At the end he had escaped to Andorra, where he lived with his partner, Tamaki Makoto.
We are struck by the observation that the man on the bridge he identifies with is a ‘well-known figure’, except that he is also a ‘total stranger’ – ‘well-known’ maybe because the poet knows the painting well and has often contemplated it, maybe an anticipation of being well-known himself through his poetry, but there’s the paradoxical stranger image – which is perhaps about his own alienation from the world. He is the man on the bridge whose face is hidden from us.
I cannot find a copy of it but we get a pretty clear idea of what the canvas contains from James’ word-painting – he’s good at framing things thus! We are invited to follow the leaning figure’s long stare and imagine the ‘expanding iron thoughts’ James projects into his being – we must expand our thoughts ‘along the permanent white Summer rails’ curving ‘into perspective, signalling/The distance and himself’.
The use of the word ‘signalling’ is nice – especially since, just as a railway signal serves to join train and track events together, it contrives to join the figure and the whole landscape gently into a unity.
So far the poem presents a silent visual pattern of interest but then there’s what one imagines to be a loud explosion of sound as ‘the local train/Emerges like a visitation from the dark Tomb of the provincial tunnel…’ It’s an explosion because there’s the reverse idea, bringing us up short, of an ‘ascending avalanche of steam’. The picture in the mind is a double one of snow pouring down a mountain-side and the steam rising as it crashes out of the dark tunnel.
The ensuing simile strikingly takes us to a transcendent level of feeling expressing something of James’ vision of a thought relationship with the man on the bridge: his feeling is akin to the ecstasy of ‘leaping angels’ who, after their exertions might be expected to settle down for a moment on ‘the green/Deserted heaven of the country afternoon, just as he might wish to do with a virtual man on a bridge.
The world, as James presents it to us in all his writings, is full of gifts to the spirit, depicted out of the fullest sense awareness, visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. So his angels ‘come with gifts…’ Nothing that the ordinary onlooker might consider to be worth a second glance. But James is no ordinary onlooker: ‘simple hills, the trees,/Fences, fields of hay, the hedges and the flowers’ are changed in the twinkling of an eye into things ‘apparelled in celestial light’.
Then there are ‘sirens sighing in the telegraph’ before they are quickly silenced by ‘the horizon’s dust’.
Much more to James’ taste is the sexual image of the ‘train that punctually roars between his legs’ against which the man on the bridge stands completely immobile – it’s what his staring up the track was fondly anticipating – the ‘secret locomotion of his gaze’.
James is now identifying strongly with the ‘well-known figure’ (himself, maybe), and the ‘total stranger’ with whom he would want to become one – a desire for unity of self.
For all that, the poet wishes to be simply ‘the ordinary man, spectator/Simplifying time’s complexity with sure stance/And quiet’s solid affirmations… Again this is what James Kirkup achieves in all his writing: delighting in very ordinary things, refining them eventually into haiku & tanka, making sense of the jumble of the world in his own quiet & definite way, standing up against belligerency of all kinds. At the end of the poem he might as well be saying ‘I am the open door through which the landscape moves at my desire…’
One has to wonder about the ‘security’ of the suburban bridge.
Sometime or other James asserted that ‘I follow no path, the path follows me…’
It seems appropriate in this year of 2017 to recall that in 1997 James Kirkup invited me to make a contribution to DIVERSIONS, a celebratory volume which was published by the University of Salzburg on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1998. I was proud to do so. In the event, two things of mine appeared in the volume: a letter and an article of which the following is a slightly edited version. The Railway Bridge, an early poem of James, illustrates some of the issues referred to here.
When I taught English in a Comprehensive school, a College of Education and in Further Education it was a constant concern of mine that students be somehow alerted to leading the kind of life that, properly constructed by them, would always yield up a lasting poetry of the spirit. I have found adopting the hold James had on life, evident in the imagery he manages, to be a way of keeping arbitrary horror & inhumanity at bay. How do ordinary mortals like us construct the world in a way that positively fizzes with excitement in spite of all the dross? How did James do it?
I often observed students on teaching practice getting their charges to make responses via the senses to what they observed. Encouraging multi-sense responses, going the rounds, would be another thing altogether.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A POETIC SPIRIT
Just suppose that there are still a few teachers, like yourself perhaps, left traipsing across the arid functionalist desert that education has become at the end of the 20th Century who believe against all odds in the careful nurturing of the human spirit; suppose that, setting themselves boldly against mechanism and the latter-day Gradgrindism of ‘basic numeracy and literacy’, there are still some teachers who believe that real growth comes about not through the systematic ticking of boxes that are supposed to make a record of some more or less puny ‘achievement’ but as a result of their creating the right conditions for people confidently to surf randomness and uncertainty with both excitement and skill.
Just suppose, for a moment (but no more), that there are still teachers who remain obstinate in the belief that the very purpose of education is not to put young people on a rack (or chop bits off them) to fit somebody else’s idea of a ‘vocation’ but rather to offer opportunities for all young spirits in their absolute freedom to become poets, makers of their souls through general artistic expression. Just suppose! Nothing more.
Then, in some temporary night-time oasis, having escaped the lure of barren marvels like the Internet and associated e-gadgetry, not to mention space probes and high speed roadways, oh, precious survivor of a disappearing race, you might wish to sit down and answer questions like: What are the ideal conditions for the evolution of a poet? How & why does somebody start to realise their self as ‘poet’? What experiences, beliefs, life principles lead a person to become a poet? How can we help young people model successfully the beliefs and behaviour of the poets who have for centuries beguiled us? What about considering the passage towards becoming a poet of outstanding figures who seem to have made some kind of mark?
For instance, I’m looking at some of the variables that contribute to what I take to be the poetic sensibility of James Kirkup, an admirable model, with specific reference to Sorrows, Passions and Alarms (Collins 1959), the second volume of his autobiography, in which he recalls the bundles of things that influenced his soul between the ages of 6 to 18 – ‘bundles of influences’ because this is autobiography dealing with a network of atmospheres closely related together, as I shall demonstrate, by patterns of thought and sensory acuity rather than with chronologically precise sequences of events.
My intention is first of all, by quoting extensively from Sorrows, Passions and Alarms, to catalogue what I take to be some of the unique constituents of James’ poetic development. The presupposition throughout this exploration is that the choice of words you make to render experience manipulable is determined by a specific way of relating to experience which then, building on the idea that when you see what you’ve had a chance to write you’ll know how to choose words appropriately in the future.
A propos of which, James quotes a passage from St Augustine’s Confessions which gave him a shock of recognition:-
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting or avoiding something. Thus, as I repeatedly heard words used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learned to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
A second intention in this essay is to suggest what could become a outline for a practical approach towards educating young people in ‘poetic sensibility’. Teachers will be able to work out how to create opportunities for using the model themselves.
The questions I have in mind are: What evidence is there in the things James chooses to recall of his childhood that might have a bearing on the development of his poetic sensibility? What are the linguistic-sensory patterns evident in his recording of them? How does he begin being in a creative mood? How does he sustain the creative state?
If we [had] asked James these questions I think that he would not [have been] able to answer them, at least in the way they are posed, but he [would] perhaps [have found] the following analysis ringing a few bells for him. In Sorrows, Passions and Alarms he provides valuable evidence for the reader to describe how the poetic process works for him: he tells us how to do it in his humble way. By following his chosen imagery carefully it would be possible to suggest to him how he does it. I wonder what he would [have said]! [I never knew…]
This is the gist of it:-
The things I remember from my earliest years are not of an intellectual, but of a sensuous, nature, connected mostly with smells, tastes, colours and sounds … I always had a sharp ear for music, words and phrases…
The order in which James chooses to respond here to experience is worth noting – first, smells and tastes, then the visual and finally sound, all wrapped around, as we shall see, with the kinaesthetic rather than the intellectual. The choice of the phrase ‘sharp ear’ as a way of describing his relationship to music and words, suggests a cutting, incisive, sensuous, involvement with them. Many ‘non-poetic’ people operate with a ‘blunt ear’ and their experience is likely to be impoverished as a result.
As a result of our programming, each of us responds to experience in an individual way: some would start with the sounds they hear; others might go for what they see [which is what James did in The Railway Bridge]; Proust went for smell! It is part of the teacher’s role to figure out what a child responds to most naturally, have them start there, and then seek to encourage them to go the rounds of the senses as James does. Combined with a preference for one sense, one may have chosen to be programmed to exercise an exclusively intellectual approach to the world – a more balanced approach would combine intellect, emotion and physicality. This can be taught.
Sorrows, Passions and Alarms is full of lively examples of specific ways in which this kind of ordering of approaches to experience works itself out: for instance, for some, learning to play the piano is a frustrating intellectual exercise of attacking notes on a stave in order to get a gradual approximation to ‘correctness’; for James, it was necessary for him to adopt a passionate absorption – my italics here highlight his physical/kinaesthetic approach to piano-playing:-
As I groped my way through the difficulties of a new piece, I would be carried right out of this world: there was only my fumbling brain, the notes, the keys and my aching fingers; time existed only in the bars of music, and my surroundings vanished completely…
Since a deeply felt response to his surroundings is usually very important to James’ sensibility, something rather profound seems to have happened here. As an example, we might look at the way small enclosed spaces had a stimulating effect on the growth of his imagination:-
…dimly lit places like the [outside] lavatory, the coal-house and the wash-house filled me with curious excitement and almost feverish happiness that was quite different from the joy I felt when moving freely in a large, well-lit room. These small, enclosed places made me feel safe and secure, and seemed to release my imagination, as if the very essence of my personality had been captured and concentrated by their restrictions. It was a good feeling, too, being by myself, in a place of my own…
What exactly happens to support creativity when you are on your own in a ‘small enclosed space’? Where does the capturing and concentration of the ‘essence of personality’ lead to? The following description of the outside lavatory starts with an overall feeling of coolness and freshness invaded only by the sunrays from the heat outside. The visual trance of dancing dust combined with the smell of damp newspaper gives us a glimpse of that concentrated multi-sensory intensity of the kind which is likely to lead towards poemscapes:-
…there was a coolness and freshness … even on the hottest summer day, when three rays of sunlight penetrated the semi-obscurity through the three small ventilating holes cut in the top of the door. Often I would sit watching the white motes of dust dancing in these golden beams. I would sniff the torn, damp wads of old newspapers and watch the scuttling spiders… I knew them all by name…
Noticing things by contrast one with another is a familiar pattern in James’ thought process – key to haiku-writing.
Making love – building
card castles till the last one
brings them crashing down
As a support for
the scarecrow without a face –
an old boneshaker
Formulas for Chaos (Hub Editions 1994)
The visual trance continues when James switches focus to the patterns on the wall of the closet, turning them into representations of things both tangible and magical. Hard analytical processes are combined with imaginative flights, sustaining the mystery; imagined landscapes and creatures take him into a future where such things can become the stuff of poetry. The passion for shifting appearances climaxes in a mental kinaesthesia as he is characteristically borne off away from the so-called ‘real world’ into ‘tilted mountains’ and ‘shimmering mines’.
The patches on the walls of the closet were fascinating. Long before I had heard of Leonardo da Vinci, I saw landscapes, animals, future events, continents, islands, trees, faces and unidentifiable, magical objects in the irregularities made by the peeling distemper… Mountain ranges, forests, waterfalls and whirlpools were there too, and queer people with twisty noses and humps on their chests and arrows through their necks. I interpreted all these quite literally, but that did not make them lose their mystery. For I looked upon the signs as omens… I looked into the future and saw a lightning-struck tower and a bearded man wearing earrings. There were two-nosed dolls and a dunce’s cap, and animals that appeared to be winking slyly at me out of the wall’s crumbling tapestry. Soon I was roaming freely through the forests of green birds, the tilted mountains and the shimmering mines displayed and hidden in the slowly-changing walls…
I suppose that people who can make creative responses to the universe have a more complex model of the way things are than those who choose to narrow their focus down to the accepted and the ‘normal’; people who learn to trust their creative responses do not block themselves from perceiving all options and possibilities. This is certainly true for James.
Trusting your creative responses has a lot to do with the understanding you have of the function of words: if, for you, word = thing, in exact correspondence, then poetic processes of transformation through the playful use of words becomes an impossibility; things, then, are precisely what they are and that’s the end of it. There are plenty of good examples in Sorrows, Passions and Alarms to demonstrate that James’ consciousness exists as part of a feedback loop he sets up with the external world in order to internalise it. A neat example of visual trance + kinaesthetic response + shifting perspective is the memorable passage describing his misery when the family cannot afford fireworks one Guy Fawkes Night:-
I went into the dark front-room to hide my tears of disappointment. The night air was foggy and cold and filled with spasmodic fires and explosions. I was trying to blink the tears out of my eyes and staring at the gas-lamp at the corner of the street when I saw its lantern transformed by my wet eyelashes. As I blinked and half-closed my eyes, I saw vivid rainbows shooting in and out of the light, and sparkling sun-bursts surrounding the bright yellow mantle. Long, flashing streamers of radiance danced before my astonished eyes. Splintering stars and gleaming rods of metal shimmered and vanished and shot out dazzlingly swift and sharp again. I was watching my own private firework-display, and it entranced me until my tears were dry…
Being able to create one’s own private vision offers a handy compensatory satisfaction.
Here is another example of the way ordinary things can be transformed by the free spirit into momentary fantasies out of the corner of your eye, which is where you have to look when a much feared thunderstorm is happening:-
The tablecloth shone with a weird luminosity, and the faces of my father and mother looked as if they were suspended in space. I was almost in a trance, when a whip-flash of lightning made the HP Sauce bottle, the tin of Nestlé’s milk, the glass cruet and the sugar-basin stand out in silhouette, like the skyline of a foreign city at sunset. Almost immediately, the thunder dropped on our heads like a load of coals… The Chinese wallpaper grew dim, and its pattern appeared to shift and writhe a little, though when I caught this movement out of the corner of my eye and turned my head to look more closely, the nervous yet slow agitations of the familiar exotic pattern ceased. There was a brooding mystery even in the quiet inanition of the ceiling, which, from time to time, and always unexpectedly, between two breaths, was galvanised by the lightning into a blazing waste.
The same kind of process of shifting perspectives governs the way James describes three quite different kinds of enclosed spaces. The analysis of the pleasures he found in cemetery-haunting begins with visual and then moves to kinaesthetic images, contrasting the chilling context of a funeral with the summer’s day; with the addition of auditory images concerned with the funeral we move up with James’ eye to note larks and then down again for butterflies:-
I was a haunter of cemeteries. I liked to walk there among the shining glades of marble headstones, glass-domed artificial wreaths, borders of calceolarias, lobelias and geraniums and greening jam-jars full of withered wallflowers, It was a chill, peaceful haunt on a hot summer’s day when the slow bells rolled in the great trees murmuring like a ground-swelling sea and the well-raked grey gravel-chips crunched to the grave step of funeral horses and the black, glittering-spoked wheels of the embowered hearse and the dark mourning carriages full of veiled figures whose faces were lit by the soft radiance of the lily-wreath gleaming in the dark of the cab. Through the trees swollen by summer the passing-bell sombrely, poignantly, tolled while the larks thrilled higher and higher and dead-white butterflies tumbled over and over each other around the lush-grassed graves…
It’s easy to notice more or less the same observational process at work in the very detailed
description of the contained area of the bowling green where James liked to go to read:-
The bowling green on a summer evening was the best place in the park. Deep-set in flowering rockeries, laburnum and lilac bushes dipped fragrantly over the sun-warmed seats round its level green. It was pleasant to sit there, almost under the eaves of the new villas springing up outside, and watch the white, smoothly rolling ‘jack’ followed by silently-running bowls the colour of well-sucked ‘Black Bullets’ (hard treacle mints): the white patch on the side of the bowl would blur and wobble until it settled down into a clean white circle as the bowl flowed noiselessly over the square green lake of grass. I watched the calm gestures of the shirt-sleeved players – black silhouettes eaten away by the bright light behind them, and listened to the occasional thump of the over-shot ball in the grassy ditch. Then the white-shoed players would kick the balls together: there was the soft knock of woods, and the trampled grass of the little ditch beyond the ribbed rubber mats would scent the whole evening with a clean, green-tinged freshness. Among the flowering privets, cats would be nosing and nuzzling the fresh shoots on the sooty stems. The bowl-house was dark and warm, with scores of white-disced bowls luminous as huge horses’ eyes in the wooden racks.
Describing his parents’ allotment hut, James makes one little room an everywhere by combining kinaesthetic, olfactory and visual images to recreate the magic of times ‘when afternoons seemed endless’:-
It was very small – hardly more than eight or nine feet square, but high enough for a grown-up person to stand up in. It was painted apple-green, and had a white-framed window curtained with sprigged muslin. On a hot day, when we unlocked the door, a blast of hot air would greet us, smelling of musty newspaper, tarred twine, sacking, paraffin, earth, geraniums and the old cretonne covers of the basket-chairs… The inner walls of the little cabin were painted pale green. There were numerous brass hooks on which hung hanks of green twine, bunches of raffia, rusty scissors, drying onion-sets, old seed-catalogues and calendars and a huge straw gardening-hat with a broad red-polka-dotted white band: it had belonged to my granny. There were bundles of muddy canes standing in the corners, and a treacly fly-paper, nubbly with dead flies, hung glistening from the ceiling. When we made tea, we spread the table with a red, white and blue checked cloth which I still possess. I treasure it as a memory of those magic, happy days when afternoons seemed endless and life, though sometimes cruel and often hard, as secure as the gardener’s well-marked seasons.
The suggestion of insecurity outside the comfort of a contained stability may have had something to do with the difficulty of getting on with oneself and with other people. Staring into a mirror to outstare the strange person staring back at you there will, from my own experience, make meeting real people problematical:-
I spent many hours in front of the looking-glass practising ventriloquy but always became obsessed by the problem of why I couldn’t look right into my own eyes: I could never quite meet my own glance, however hard I tried… I began to wonder who I really was, and had doubts concerning my true identity…
[In one of our all too brief & infrequent face to face meetings in London, James once told me that (present company excepted of course) he was reasonably happy to meet people but found that before he’d been with them for a short time he was eager to see the back of them.] If this was the result of a profound concern for one’s own sense of reality as compared with that of other people it could quite easily lead to a sort of trance-like feeling when in the presence of others; it might lead eventually to out-of-body experiences such as James describes occurring during periods of migraine, neuralgia, ear-ache and sick-headache:-
…I would enter a trance-like state of total ennui. I found I could detach my mind from my body by sitting with my right ankle resting on my left knee. After a while the whole of my right leg would grow completely numb. I enjoyed the strange sensation of being dissociated from my body when I watched my hand touching my senseless right leg. In this trance-like state I would feel suddenly remote and far away from the world. For many weeks I was convinced I was the Dalai Lama, and that Tibetan monks might be calling any day to take me off to Lhasa. The room, the ceiling and the floor would slide gently away into nothingness…
Awareness of the paradox of a free-wheeling intangible spirit contained in solid flesh leads to a mystical trance in which visual images coincide with ones that are kinaesthetic in nature:-
…I would find my gaze fixed on a few square inches of flowered wallpaper which became a pattern of moving faces, all slightly different from one another, that mouthed silent smiles and curses at my dispirited body. Then I would feel myself hovering outside myself and looking down with dispassionate curiosity at the body I had left lying on our old horse hair sofa. The sights and sounds of life gradually faded away and a black fringe of gathering darkness would slowly overwhelm all but a single speck of brightness in the hypnotic wallpaper’s dead, interlocking pattern. I clung to that pin-point of light with all my strength. I knew I had the power to make even that last prick of light disappear, but I did not dare. This lonely game was a dangerous one. It would not do to take it too far.
Given such a heightened sensibility early in his life, James preferred the company of adults to that of children on the whole and, when engaging in conventional play with them, he liked to escape from their presence and gain a mystical participation in his surroundings:-
…I could run fast, and I was very good at hiding, being able to immobilise myself completely for long stretches of time until even my breathing almost stopped. Like certain birds and insects I could take on a kind of protective colouring from a shadowy brick wall or a row of mangy privets. I liked most of all getting away from the others for a while to enjoy the solitude of my hiding-place: I often longed for one where no one would ever find me again…
James’ accounts of people, places and events are always from an entirely personal point of view; he transmutes the ordinary into something highly charged and mysterious by taking it into himself and only then focussing on words:-
The names of flowers and vegetables took on an almost sacred significance as I heard them repeated again and again like ritual poems by my garden-crazy parents – Savoy and Winnigstadt cabbage, Snowball cauliflower, broccoli, curly kale, Kerr’s Pink potatoes … King Edward VII and Arran Banner, Arran Pilot, Sharp’s Express, Majestic, Gladstone and Great Scot were also part of the great potato-poem …
The great potato-poem… A fascination for words leads to his great word-poems and great world-poems. One who is wary of relationships and pursues solitary pastimes moves away from articulating thoughts via the larynx; a slide towards conversations with the self are likely so that mere words, building a self-sufficient model of reality, expand to dominate the mind; their sounds, their meanings, their significance goes beyond any particular ordinary context – the beginnings of philological enthusiasm?
I enjoyed sailing down the middle of the road on my sledge, into and out of the yellow patches of horse-droppings that shaded off delicately into the flattened snow, into and out of the pools of gaslight cast by the streetlamps and by the cheerful Christmassy windows of the little grocers’ shop at the corner of Ada Street and George Potts Street. That was my world, a small but very personal one, in which the names of streets were like the names of continents on a map of the world.
Not only words possess sacred significance but also ordinary objects when focussed on with solitary intensity on a coach ride through Northumberland:-
I couldn’t take my eyes from the window. The most commonplace things – shops in Morpeth, children playing hopscotch in a village, a horse running in a field, an express-train, a bridge over the River Coquet – filled me with passionate curiosity, as if I had never seen such things before.
Not for James the factory-produced diversions of toyshops – he is once again satisfied with the ordinary things he found around the house to play with:-
…I got most satisfaction out of playing with kitchen utensils and other commonplace household things, like the tongs, which made a fine alligator, empty Puck Match-boxes, the nutmeg-grater, the ancient, brass candlesticks… the china pie-crust support, cotton-reels, clothes pegs, boxes and tins, bits of wood and cardboard, scissors and paper… I played with my father’s spirit-level, watching the green bead of air shuttling from one end to the other of the little glass window. His box-wood rule, too, made fences for fantasy-gardens like those on our Chinese tea-caddies…
Even when he acquired a second-hand set of Meccano pieces, James rose in his imagination beyond the obvious to something that would never have appeared in the official manual by which he was frustrated because he didn’t have enough pieces to make what was illustrated there. He
…began building fantasy constructions and primitive ‘mobiles’… I was determined to build one which would use up every accessory and every nut and bolt in the Meccano box. It was a huge, spiky, forbidding structure with revolving arms depending from eccentric turrets on which unusable accessories wagged and tinkled. I adorned it with bits of rainbow-wool, sweets, ‘bobby-dazzler’ mirrors, feathers, glass alleys, knives and forks, cotton reels, privet leaves, daisies, buttercups and dandelions … The total effect was utterly strange and yet riotously pretty, and it gave me a sense of achievement, which we are told is so important in life.
There is the same delight at a heady disruption of the norm in the description of painting and redecorating the Kirkup-house. James distances the extreme delight by viewing it from the relative ‘normality’ of school, constructing his own alternative mental reality. Another contrast is the resulting ‘anarchic disorder’ versus the customary security of home. Notice once more the overwhelming kinaesthetic joy moving to combined olfactory and visual excitement leading eventually to a consuming passion for words:-
Painting and redecorating the house created a fine anarchic disorder in a life my parents tried to keep as secure and steady as possible. At school, during lessons, I would catch my breath as I thought of the festive confusion at home, where the furniture was grotesquely draped with old sheets and tablecloths and all the mats, rugs, canvas and carpets rolled up and stacked in the dark corner under the stairs. My heart would leap with joy as I turned the corner of the street and saw ladders leaning against the wall: there might be a few chairs and a sofa standing in the back-yard – a strange, hallucinating conversation-piece …There were rich smells of old burnt paint and putty and varnish. There was the bliss of watching the front-door being ‘grained’, though I always thought the pastel undercoats were nicer than the final slick coat of gingery paint. I was all ears for the words of the trade, like glue size, turps, meths and plaster of Paris. I liked white-washing days, when I hung on to the tottery kitchen-steps and my mother swish-swashed tirelessly across the ceiling with her loaded brush: when she came down, her sweet pink face and fair hair were dusted with tiny freckles of whitewash…
Outside the home, James fuses himself with the environment – in a bodily engagement with a well, for example:-
…I would hang my head and shoulders over the rim of the well and make booming noises at my dark reflected face, haloed in sun-whitened hair …
or with the planet itself whose surface is a great provider of tactile and olfactory delight:-
…I would often play with it like sand, and stretch full-length upon it, burying my face in its warm, crumbling darkness. The manure heap had a broad jolly stink… it was the smell of life. What is strange is that I should also have such a strong affinity with water – not only with the sea, the ancestral element, but also with rivers, streams, springs, rainwater and common tapwater. The rainwater tubs in our back-yard were to me sources of mystery and power: their dark soot-flighted water had an elemental smell, an unforgettable mineral tang with a ‘snatch’ of tar: their depths had often held the reflected outline of my head and thrown back a deepened, gloomy echo of my lonely talks with myself.
The people in James’ life come to us complete with sensory attachments. The portrait of the chemist gives you the impression that in part James modelled himself on him – he ‘always tried out everything on himself first’ and stimulated a sense of contrasting smells:-
The chemist was a thin gentleman with red hands who stank of a patent vapour rub. He was always inhaling and gargling and bathing his eyes and popping samples of pills and cough-drops into his mouth. One day he would be trying out a new finger-stool, the next an eye-patch of pink celluloid the exact colour of his own face: this gave him a startling one- eyed look. But at least you knew you could rely upon the stuff he sold you, because he always tried out everything on himself first… He used to give away with every purchase small cards scented with ‘Parma Violets’ or ‘Geranium Leaf’ or ‘Attar of Roses’… I still have one of those cards and it still smells faintly of ‘Old Cottage Lavender Water.
People located in their environment are very special in Sorrows, Passions and Alarms. One of the most haunting descriptions in the book takes us back nicely to the idea of containment – in a hollow in the cliffs at Eyemouth that forms a circus ring. The ‘circus’ is a surreal affair in which the sound of the sea and of gulls crying is made more noticeable and a touch uncanny by the silence of the circus girl’s balancing act. Once again James’ focus of attention moves tellingly – this time from absorption in the curious performance in the hollow of the cliff ranging from the thin sounds of the gramophone in the open air to the trawler smoke on the distant horizon:-
One of the great delights of that holiday was a circus. It was not a real circus, but a rather mysterious affair, held in the open in a hollow in the cliffs above the fishing-village. It consisted of an elderly man, a young girl and a black and white dog with an orange ruff that jumped through hoops… The man played a melodeon and the girl did balancing tricks in complete silence, or to the barely audible strains of a portable gramophone perched on a perambulator, where a baby’s bare pink foot could occasionally be seen waving.
The focus changes:-
The long, sad cry of gulls brought the sound of the sea right over our heads. There was something almost eerie about the little quiet circus in the gently-falling twilight, with the imperceptibly-moving sea and the trailing smoke of distant trawlers masking the horizon’s long backcloth. We went every evening. It was always the same performance, but it never failed to entertain us.
Absorption in the repetition of ordinariness is made bizarre…
So what are the variables that contribute to the development of James’ poetic sensibility? I have quoted extensively from the text of Sorrows, Passions and Alarms in order to give a real flavour of the writing and also, of course, to depict James’ deep awareness of the world he interacted with, the special relationship he had with things around him, so that we are now perhaps in a position to summarise the nature of the things that served to get James going. The questions which were posed at the beginning of this paper were:-
• How does James begin being in a poetic mood?
• How does he sustain the ‘creative state’?
• How does the poetic process work for him?
• How might all these considerations put us in a position to guide young people to become poets?
My analysis of the extracts from Sorrows, Passions and Alarms suggests fairly powerfully that what James does is, first of all (and the order is important) to go into a visual trance; this is often very quickly followed by olfactory/auditory awareness leading to a feeling of absorption into the total experience; when words are associated with this process they become an intrinsic part of it – they don’t stand apart from it in some battered old dictionary but become felt in some magical way. So here is the loop:-
Variously into this electrifying circuit are inserted these things:-
• A trust in all creative, imaginative, responses to experience – probably as a result of felt familiarity with this conceptual circuit
• The allowing of yourself to be absorbed into experience – probably a function of the circuit itself
• The noting of contrasts
• A deliberate shifting of perspectives
• A giving way to sensitively analysed mystery
• Reliance on internal compensations for external disappointment
• A feeling of anticipated security in the idea of ‘containment’
• A full recognition and response to the power of what seems merely ‘ordinary’
• Serious play with words – building a sense of mystery in the words themselves
• The ability to treat all experience as ‘the first time ever’
A curriculum designed to provide education through poetry would be constructed around these concepts. Helping young people to become poets is the real challenge of the New Millennium. James points the way.
June 1997 (Edited)
Unfortunately, the New Millennium has turned out to be pretty much the same as the Old – maybe much worse.