A Prospect of Goole

A flock of blue gantries is suddenly there
in the flatland, like wading birds
drawn down the wind

from the north. They all face one way, calm
as hieroglyphics, with foreknowledge
of an estuary

so far denied me. Sea into fields, sky seen
through girders, trade routes
into heartland, inter-

penetrations everywhere – miles between me
and Drax, whose cloud-capped
cooling towers

forge endlessly inland, steam unravelling
east and away behind them,
like this train

that feels emptier stop by stop, filling
with distance, that I vanish in
whichever way

I turn. I could be getting somewhere.

A poem about being alone… but we’re never alone when writing a poem. Pick up your pen, and you’re in dialogue with all the writing you’ve been touched by. “Aha,” says the critical theorist in the back room of my mind. “Intertextuality!” I don’t disagree: as long as we take every memory, sense experience and conversation to be a ‘text’, we’re intertextual beings… though to say this extends the word ‘text’ to a point where it dissolves into, simply, everything. Which is what starts to happen as this poem ends.

These words I’m writing now, though, are about relationships and conversations, and so is this poem. I wasn’t alone on that train. On one level I was with my wife (two hundred miles away) because an important passage of her life had taken place on Humberside. Seeing the place for the first time I became part of a story I’d been told, and which had become part of me. As the poem says, “Inter/penetrations everywhere”…

On another level, I was on that train with Basho, that calm, wry, restless traveller and haiku master from seventeenth century Japan. He was not a tourist, any more than I was, passing Goole; he was a dedicated journeyer through ordinary places, and his haibun journals like The Narrow Road to the Deep North are the most organic blend I’ve seen of prose and poetry, reportage and reflection. He was a man of Zen, whose ideal of haiku was to lose oneself in the object so that, for an instant, you are it: the ego disappears.

Darkening waves –
cry of wild ducks,
faintly white.

This is Basho, in Lucien Stryk’s ruthlessly spare translation. Every school child today knows that haiku have seventeen syllables, but this version makes no attempt to reproduce that count in English – a language so different in structure and sound from Japanese that the form cannot be carried over arithmetically. What Stryk asserts is the spirit of haiku – in particular the ‘light touch’, karumi, which also connotes the specialness of ordinary things. The verse is rich with evocation and a teasing synaesthesia (is it the ducks, or their cry, which is faintly white?) but it is also concerned with the liminal moment, when something steps over into not being. It is not only the ducks that disappear but the perceiver’s eye (and I).

A Prospect Of Goole records, I hope accurately, the way impressions arrive in an extraordinarily flat landscape, especially when framed by the movement of a train. The flurries of metaphor and simile aren’t a tactic of estrangement: the experience was that strange. All the images, I notice, are of distance, in time or in space, but this was no plan I had made in advance. I’m discovering things. Rereading / revising the poem while writing these reflections is turning me into the Reader whose responses (says the theorist in my brain) ultimately make the poem. And I sense Basho nodding in agreement. Haiku of all verse most insist on leaving space for the reader to insert their own associations and interpretations. The three-line form helps this: for English readers there is still a default setting for the couplet or the four-line verse, so haiku feel somehow indefinably unfinished. This is in the spirit of the thing.

My stanzas make no claim to be haiku – though their three-line structure, stepped to show the drawing in of space around them, full of line-breaks that open up cracks in mid sentence, phrase or word, are clearly in a conversation with that spirit I both admire and resist. (Reading Thomas Lynch’s piece in Magma 25 I want to add: many English poems converse with ghosts of the sonnet, or the thought-shape that created and accounted for the long life of the form.)

The voice of my poem, the closeness to a style of speaking, the enjoyment of unreeling a sentence across thirteen lines – all this is surely not haiku. Neither is the metaphor and simile, which haiku in its purest form rejects… and here is where I’d disagree with Basho, though respectfully. My first book appeared in the early 1980s, during a spell of interest in visual puns and the play of metaphor – the tendency labelled ‘Martian’ after Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends A Postcard Home. But metaphor and simile have never struck me as literary devices – more a basic part of human beings’ perceptual skills. (‘What is it…? Not sure… OK, what’s it LIKE?’) They are also an accurate way of recording the transaction that takes place when the thing out there, being itself, becomes a thing perceived. What it is, it is, but what I see is to do with what it’s like. The likenesses are what I bring.

I pause here, trying to hear Basho’s answer. “Go to the pine to learn about the pine,” he said, “and to the bamboo to learn about the bamboo.” I’m hoping to get his blessing for a slightly different procedure, in which we inch closer to the Zen ideal of seeing what-is not by writing ourselves out, but by being observant, objective (and somewhat humble) about our subjectivity. (As a teacher of creative writing, that’s the quality I’d most like to encourage in a workshop group.) Some of the contemporary poets I most turn to are ones who observe their response to personal experience with objectivity – I think of Louise Glück and Mark Doty. What separates the self-indulgent from the self-aware is subtle. But haiku at least is clear: this is not about ‘I’.

Or is it? Haiku in Japanese are very sparing in their use of pronouns, so the presence of a subject has to be inferred. Stryk’s English versions of Basho are sparer than most, but even there the word ‘I’ crops up, reflecting the sense that a protagonist / observer / writer must be there.

Guest’s shadow through
the paper screen – I sit dreaming
over charcoal fumes.

Sometimes a patent emotion infuses the words, however tactful they might be.

Morning-glory –
it, too,
turns from me.

Unlike purists who use haiku as a stick with which to beat the personal in poetry, Basho has no qualms about implying his presence as a point of reference. Where his Zen responsibility comes in is in his concentration on those moments where the sense of self nearly loses itself. The shadow on the guest-house screen might be a stranger in the next room, or inside the house when Basho is outside; it might also remind him that for the stranger next door, a shadow on the wall might well be all he is. The absent pronouns of the original would let these shifts of perspective happen seamlessly.

In my new robe
this morning –
someone else.

It is easy for Basho to say very little about his feelings. By his time, haiku had already become a highly elaborated code in which given words could be expected to connote a season or historical reflection or emotion in its readers. The conventions were rigid enough that he could subvert them: the most famous haiku in the world (one with no quite right translation, but let’s settle for “Old pond – / a frog leaps in / the sound of water”) cut through the cliché of his day when a thousand poems might describe the singing of the frog. But we cannot pretend that classical haiku happened in a state of pure perceptual innocence. They were part of a highly ordered culture, which balanced the open-endedness of Zen with encyclopaedic codification of the associations and responses deemed appropriate. Some of the basic haiku emotions – mono no aware, wabi, sabi or karumi itself – are scarcely translatable into English, certainly not into corresponding common-parlance words or phrases.

And yet we can and do translate, which means partly to re-create. Giving example of haiku to school students I find myself rendering one of Basho’s verses:

Where the gull
flies out of sight –
an island.

In the original, it is a cuckoo; the Japanese cuckoo has associations totally unlike the English version. Making it a gull, I was back on childhood beaches of my own, and I had a poem I could discuss with conviction. As long as the bird disappeared, and took us into nothingness with it, I think Basho would approve.

Still, most of us come to haiku so devoid of that cultural background that it is no wonder that some famous haiku can look, to Western eyes, not so much light-of-touch as slight. Since Japanese literature first reached Europe at the start of the twentieth century through the work of interpreters like Lafcadio Hearn, there has always been a danger for Western haiku writers of falling into a kind of preciousness, not the rigour of Zen but an aesthetic frisson, art for art’s sake. A more robust use of the influence came with Modernists like Ezra Pound. Wallace Stevens’ early (1917) Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird did a fine dance round the haiku manner, but

When the blackbird flew out of sight
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles

it’s Basho’s cuckoo, with the added sense that there might be any number of other observers, each the centre of their arbitrary world. But another presence in my and Basho’s railway compartment, passing Goole, is William Carlos Williams, who found home ground for the haiku-like spare unglossed observation in the unremarkable things and people of New Jersey.

Where a
waste of cinders
slopes down to

the railroad and
the lake
stand three children

beside the weed-grown
of a wrecked car

immobile in a line
facing the water…

This extract from View of a Lake could have been a protest poem, with its glimpse of Depression squalor, but what draws Williams most, the point he revisits as an ending thirty lines later, is the fact that the children are oblivious to him, the passer-by in the stalled traffic, and entirely the centre of their own unreachable world.

The word ‘I’ does not occur in View of a Lake, but Williams’ position in it, watching, is almost as vivid as what he observes. Still, it is not Not-I that is the Williams Carlos Williams issue; it is his dictum “No ideas but in things”. This might be the most mis-taken piece of good advice in contemporary creative writing, and used to hammer every abstract word out of every poem brought to workshop. But Williams’ poetry is very alive to ideas (just as Basho is very alive to the individual’s emotions). One of his benchmark pieces, as much of a challenge in its way as his famous red wheelbarrow or the plums in the icebox, goes:

A rumpled sheet
of brown paper
about the length

and apparent bulk
of a man was
rolling with the

wind slowly over
and over in
the street as

a car drove down
upon it and
crushed it to

the ground. Unlike
a man it rose
again rolling

with the wind over
and over to be as
it was before.

At first sight, this is a haiku-like moment of perception, and slightly surreal. Then I notice that it’s an experiment, a slow testing-to-destruction of a simile. That assertive “unlike” is a flourish, a quod erat demonstrandum in reverse. Then I notice the title, so unobtrusive and abstract that I hadn’t registered it at first: The Term. This is a poem about philosophy, about concepts, about language (as well as the haiku moment, and the simile). It’s not a case of No Ideas, but the ideas are utterly embedded in the thing.

Zen too is an idea, though one radically sceptical of words (a more radical critique than any literary theory, because of its insistence on being lived). Basho can be caught playing with Chuang-Tzu’s dream about being a butterfly (or vice versa). My own confession about A Prospect of Goole is that an early draft had “an idea / into things” among its list of inter-penetrations. That was scaffolding, or was the husk of an idea that the poem grew out of. Put like that, I realise that William Carlos Williams was always there, unrecognised at first, alongside me and Basho on the train.

That’s not all. “This train / that feels emptier stop by stop” could be Adlestrop. Edward Thomas’s poem is widely taken as a hymn to rural England, but Thomas was aware of the Japanese writing and ideas new-found by the West. (I am indebted to Judy Kendall’s insightful research for this connection.) Basho would have recognised the widening circles of “all the birds of Oxfordshire” as one of those cuckoo-vanishing moments. I don’t quite dare make such a claim in A Prospect of Goole. That final line keeps one hand on its ambiguity, as though it still could wrench open the door of the train and jump off. I think it doesn’t, though. I’d like to travel on with Basho, Bill and Edward for a little longer, and see where we get.