Poetry in Practice: The Book of Emma

By Lachlan Mackinnon

Lachlan Mackinnon writes about a special kind of inspiration.

Lachlan Mackinnon’s fourth collection of poems, Small Hours (Faber) includes The Book of Emma – a series consisting largely of prose poems, in which he revisits his memories of Emma Smith, a friend and fellow undergraduate at Oxford, who died young from a fall on Lundy Island. In this article Mackinnon reflects on his friend’s continued and eventually unavoidable presence in his imaginative life, on the role that the unconscious element can play in composing poems, particularly over a longer scale, and how the writing of these poems brought him back to the excitement he felt when he first started writing poetry.

Lachlan Mackinnon writes:
I don’t remember when I first started talking to Emma, or if talking to her is quite the right expression. It must have started soon after her death. I think perhaps I used her as a kind of sounding board. But I don’t like the exploitative sense of ‘used’. Better perhaps to say had her as a sounding board. Her symbolic importance was that she was a person most dedicated to, and protective of, her own imaginative life which was that of somebody who wanted to become, was indeed becoming, a writer.

Emma was someone of whom other people had very high expectations. She had very great gifts and tremendous powers of observation. I am confident, despite her diffidence about it, that she would have been a writer, and a very distinguished one. Our relationship was extremely intense, but non-sexual. I suppose she embodied what I felt to be a better version of my own aspirations – no, not exactly that, rather that she was the only person I knew who seemed to be wrestling with the imaginative life in a way that resembled my own. There were elements of rivalry, of course. What did we talk about? Books, ideas, people – not politics – and a little about painting. We hardly spoke of writing. There was something intuitive and unsayable about our awareness of each other as writers. In his song Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan sings “He was the brother you never had”. I don’t want to be excessive. She was hardly Lenny Bruce. We were two young people passionate about the same things. And we were in the ordinary sense friends.

I feel as though my relationship with her did not end with her death, though I don’t want to sound as though
I held some lunatic private belief system, and in the end the pressure of that feeling reached the point at which it needed to be expressed.

I was putting together what I hoped would be a book of poems – some five or six years’ work – and realised that a fair number of the poems didn’t really take off. Looking at them as a group, I realised that I’d been writing quite a lot about the time I knew Emma without ever writing about her. It’s perhaps worth saying that she does appear in my earlier books but nowhere near as centrally. I next saw that she was the missing subject of the failed poems and knew that if I didn’t write directly about her or to her, it could turn into a permanent blockage.

Fortunately I teach and the school holidays had just begun. For three weeks, keeping virtually office hours, I sat in front of a computer and typed The Book of Emma. I had no idea at all whether it would be publishable and wasn’t in the least concerned with that.

I’m not very happy with the idea of poetry as therapy, but in this case it may have been. I had to make very few changes to the manuscript. One section was replaced because I’d got the history wrong and one section was added for the sake of clarity. Of the verse passage, two came from notebooks. It’s been a curious pattern in my writing life that longer things have tended to arrive very fast at the end of a period of sterility. In my last book, The Jupiter Collisions, there are two long sequences. The first half of Pips in a Watermelon was written within a week or so and then for nearly two months, nothing else. I thought the poem would never be finished. Then at last I started with a new poem which, when I finished it, I realised was the next part of the sequence, which was completed in less than a week. A Water Buffalo in Guangzhou Province was written in a night in Amiens. The last third of my first book, Monterrey Cypress, a sequence set in Paris, was written in a week. It makes one sound incredibly lazy.

In the writing of The Book of Emma I experienced a formal liberation. I’d never got prose into a poem before and these poems were largely written in prose. I think that when writing over a longer scale one has to learn to trust that in some sense the material is being shaped without a fully conscious awareness of what’s going on. I don’t mean to invoke the Surrealists’ automatic writing as a precedent. Simply to wonder how far the practice of writing poems means that some aspects of the craft of writing poems become internalised, as a second nature.

I can never look at an advertisement without being troubled by the almost invariable metrical or semantic idiocy of the line breaks. It’s almost a physiological response as though the rhythms of one’s body were being tampered with. We know scientifically that in many ways speech is closer to verse than prose – whatever Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain thought. Julia Kristeva suggests in Desire in Language that poets are people who are, in a sense, linguistically arrested, in that they remain unusually close to the features of language which excite young children and even to the primary babble which still has to be disciplined in the sounds of any particular language.

This makes sense. Composers presumably have a childlike fascination with noises. Painters with colours. Potters with clay. Art is after all a kind of play. So it might be that an unconscious structuring activity is simply a version of the child’s attempt to make sense of the world, by which I mean literally to term the world into sense. In his poem For John Berryman, from his last collection Day By Day, Robert Lowell wrote “We asked to be obsessed by writing/ and we were.”

A poem in Small Hours which other people seem to like more than I do, but which surprised me in the writing, is Pigeon. It’s not a very long poem and began as an exercise in the kind of loose, long and loosely rhymed lines which Derek Walcott often uses. It began as simply descriptive but it led me towards an understanding that the human world is much better than we think, an understanding which led me almost to echo Wordsworth’s Simon Lee and brought back the excitement poetry had for me when I first started to write – the way it can almost trick us into telling the truth.

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