The richest events occur in us long before the soul perceives them. And, when we begin to open our eyes to the visible, we have long since committed ourselves to the invisible.
Poets are often advised to ‘find a voice.’ This voice can only come, I think, from the unique past and terroir of the poet. In his essay, ‘Something to Write Home About’, Seamus Heaney describes growing up in Ireland between the Catholic and the Protestant communities, between a railway and a road, between the sound of a trotting horse and that of a shunting engine, between a variety of accents and dialects. One of the dialect words which lodged in his memory from that past was ‘hoke’.
‘The word means to root about and delve into and forage for and dig around, and that is precisely the kind of thing a poem does so well. A poem gets its nose to the ground and follows a trail and hokes its way by instinct to the real centre of what concerns it.’
Born in the middle of the Depression, money was short, but there was a freedom which now seems unthinkable, and I too grew up as an in-between: between two world wars; between a rural community and the chimneys of the nearby textile mills; between the sounds of farm animals and shunting trains; between the speech patterns of my family and the rich Lancashire dialects of the neighbouring village and mill-towns; between a Catholic mother and a Protestant father and between their two gods: my father’s Our-Father-Which-Art, who had the Power and the Glory, and my mother’s Our-Father-Who-Art, who did not.
Heaney (in his youth, a keen devourer of comics) proposes that the recitations of simple ballads and verses which children were, in the past, expected to perform at parties and to visiting relatives, gave verse, however humble, a place in the home, made it one of the ordinary rituals of everyday life.
We too learnt poems by heart and to recite them, learnt to sing hymns, folk songs and music-hall ballads. There were also prayers, the old fairy stores, Beatrix Potter, the Dandy and Beano comics, Churchill’s wartime speeches, English and Latin liturgies, the austere grandeurs of Gregorian chant; all of these fed me with an eclectic mix of words and rhythms to top-up the rhymes, singing-games and skipping of the playground, and all became gloriously muddled in my head –
Bye, Baby Bunting, Daddy’s gone a-hunting … Introibo ad altare Dei, ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meum … Soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum? … I have loved, Oh Lord, the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth … as I were goin’ o’er Treacle Moor, I met me old sweet’eart, Mickey Plum; ‘e said, art tha goin’ t’funeral? … one-pertater, two pertater, three pertater, four; five pertater, six pertater, seven pertater more … Vere dignum et justem est, equam et salutare… O. U .T spells out, and out you must go …
It is by ‘hoking’ about in this past that I grope my way into the future while stumbling through the present, where the reading of contemporary poetry has become a passion and a necessity, an essential way to find a voice which, while still the product of the past, may also come to reflect my life and preoccupations now.
In this, poetry magazines are invaluable. For the price of a glass of wine in many London pubs, one can still buy excellent poetry magazines. Most of us have our favourites (usually those clear-sighted enough to publish us), but I have always had a particular affection for Magma.