Sunday, 2 December 2007

Letter 8

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on Miporadio

So Here We Are

Thomas A. Clark, born in Greenock, Scotland in 1944, writes an attentive poetry, giving space to each word and statement so that it can breathe and linger with the reader. His poetry is also attentive to walking, to the necessity of slow deliberation, and to words and their resonance. I would like to explore walking as a poetic theme using Clark’s work as a starting point to weave backwards and forwards.

The first poem in Thomas A. Clark’s Sixteen Sonnets (Moschatel Press 1981) begins:

as I walked out early
into the order of things
the world was up before me

This neatly situates the narrative self within a prior world of phenomena and perceptions. The ‘order of things’ carrying the phenomena and ‘the world was up’ denoting the ongoing activity. That phrase ‘the order of things’ is recognisable as the English title of Michel Foucault’s study of the epistemology of the human sciences (Les Mots et les Choses 1966 translated as The Order of Things: An Archaeology Of The Human Sciences 1970) and alerts the reader to questions of the ordering of knowledge and of the interaction between the self and the world. Clark’s narrative self walks out into the order of things, that is to say, assuming that things are out there and moving with a sense of attentiveness and becoming. It is therefore a knowing self and walking becomes the act of that knowing self.

The poem continues

as I stepped out bravely
the very camber of the road
turned me to its purpose
it was on a morning early
I put design behind me
hear us and deliver us
to the hazard of the road
in all the anonymous places
where the couch grass grows
watch over us and keep us
to the temper of the road

Here discovery and the world with all its terrors are already active and the narrative self steps out to build with the hazardous ground as it is. The line ‘here us and deliver us’ invokes the dissenting tradition of Piers the Plowman, Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton and Blake and of being delivered from oppression to the promised land. Here explicitly defined as ‘in all the anonymous places / where the couch grass grows’ and enveloped within the echoes of a prayer that is conditioned by temper, with all its variant meanings implied.

For Wordsworth and others walking was seen as an aid to the recovery of memory, creative expression and connecting to the divine. Wordsworth’s walking poems, such as ‘An Evening Walk’, ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar, ‘The Female Vagrant’ and ‘Michael’ connected walking with poetic labour, poverty and the rural poor. Walking then carries within it a subversive content through its associations with poverty, necessity, wandering, awareness and discovery.

From Hazlitt’s 1823 essay ‘My First Acquaintance With Poets’ we learn that the young Coleridge liked ‘to compose over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption’.

The Romantics set a vogue for walking that was fuelled by guide books and institutionalised by anti-enclosure associations, open spaces and footpath societies and linked to the making of the self. The walking ideology, though, fixes upon walking as an educational experience rather than the cognitive processes of perception, memory, judgement and reasoning that were central to Wordsworth and Hazlitt.

One of my fondest memories of the 1998 Wessex Poetry Festival was Thomas A Clark’s reading early on a Sunday morning, which culminated in a reading of In Praise of Walking (1988), a poem consisting of forty statements about walking that weave across the nineteenth century ideology of walking.

In Praise of Walking begins:

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least
possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence,
property, triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our
preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth
with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering.

There are walks on which we tread in the footsteps of others,
walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.

A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be
consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every
point along the way.

This deceptively simple poem interjects into an expansive realm of discursive poetics that has been the main path of English poetry and dissent since the nineteenth century.

Clark, in common, with J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geraldine Monk and others, has begun to move beyond the Wordsworthian rupture with the pastoral into new territory.

Following the poem then we note that the world is reached by setting out, again implying ordering, and is there to be discovered, suggesting our knowledge of the world is partial or incomplete and implying an action and a process. The use of ‘we’ suggests that it is possible for us all to discover the world. The ‘least possible baggage’ suggests that closure of thought and emotional response hinders discovery of the world. Discovery, here, implies making connections as we walk and possibly reconnecting with the physical world and human life before or outside of mechanisation.

The second statement acknowledges the possibility of walking away from the world of ‘coercion, violence, property, triviality’. It does not imply withdrawal as such but rather choice. Triviality recalls John Gay’s Trivia, Or The Art of Walking The Streets of London (1716), an important poem in the history of walking poems. Trivia here refers to the Roman goddess of crossroads, the three ways. This public poem takes the form of a narrated walk through London’s streets with a mock classical overlay that advises the reader on the city’s perils and the walker on how to dress. There is a lot of waste, sewage and incipient violence. It presents a distorted image of beggars and urban poverty as Tim Hitchcock points out in a new edition of the poem, edited by Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman (OUP 2007). So ‘triviality’ here might signify after Gay an element of frivolity and distortion from the underlying conditions as well as implying a movement away from the unimportant to the important.

The third statement registers the connections between the visionary and the primacy of immediate experience. Note the absence of interest in the self and use of the plural in this clear espousal of an undefined world of discovery and visions. Walking is seen as part of the visionary tradition rather than any specific elaboration of a self. This is Wordsworthian then without the self as object. A walk is its own measure.

I am reminded here of John Ashbery’s poem ‘Just Walking Around’ where he writes

The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there and mystery and food.

In other words it is the journey that is important and that may involve opening into ‘light’ (vision), ‘mystery’ (the unknown) and ‘food’ (sustenance and thought).

Clark’s poem’s insistence on the connections between walking and humanness clearly is in contradistinction to those elements of social and economic life where humans are under the constraints of ‘time, work and discipline’ and of an infrastructure that is eroding those places where it is still possible to walk.

John Barrell in The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840 (CUP 1972) points out the insularity of local transport systems in that period and travellers’ perceptions of the pre-enclosure landscape as mysterious and hostile. Once in a network of paths it was not easy for a traveller to find a way out unless they had local knowledge.

The poem invokes those hidden paths as a reminder of how far the earth has been transformed by transport systems, networks and motorways and how it is still possible to find new ways of doing things.

Kim Taplin has explored the history of footpaths in The English Path (Perry Green Press 2000) through the writings of John Clare, William Barnes, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and contemporary poets such as David Caddy, Jeremy Hooker, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Barry MacSweeney, Iain Sinclair and John Welch. She shows how the network of footpaths connects humans with the natural world as well as place with place and how walking has and still does set boundaries.

Iain Sinclair has developed the London literary walk into a mode of creation, echoing that other London walker, David Gascoyne’s Night Thoughts (1955), in works such as Lights Out For The Territory (1997), where he writes:

‘Time on these excursions should be allowed to unravel at its own speed, that’s the whole point of the exercise. To shift away from the culture of consumption into a meandering stream.’

The poem continues with the powerful line:

There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them.

When I visited the childhood home of the writer, poet and broadcaster, John Arlott (1914-1991), at Basingstoke, I was astounded to find a tall and pin-thin Gothic building near a cemetery. The cramped living room was seemingly impossible for a family to use. It seemed to be devoid of light. Within and without exuded a distinct aura. There was both a joy and a sadness. This beguiling place began to make sense in relation to Arlott’s determination to become a writer, his involvement in the literary world, of the BBC and pubs of Soho, and resonated again with the personal tragedies of his later life. The ‘Voice of English Summer’ indeed had always been surrounded by darkness. In sum, this peculiar house made sense in relation to the life of the poet, cricket commentator and wine connoisseur and I felt that I knew more about Arlott as a result of walking there.

Clark’s poem is in argument with or contradistinction to Wordsworth’s and other earlier walking poems.

What I take with me, what I leave behind, are of less importance than what I discover along the way.

To be completely lost is a good thing on a walk.

The most distant places seem accessible once one is on the

Convictions, directions, opinions, are of less importance than
sensible shoes.

In the course of a walk we usually find out something about
our companion, and this is true even when we travel alone.

Clark’s emphasis upon discovery is quite distinct from T.S.Eliot’s lines from Little Gidding (1942):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

For Clark, walking is not so much about knowing as discovering. ‘A dull walk’, he writes, ‘is not without value’. The emphasis is on slowness as opposed to the speed of modern communications and those things we share outside of commercial and monetary value. Making connections, discovery, in this sense concerns reading the landscape encountered. This can take different directions from the materialist to the mystical. From J.H. Prynne through Sinclair to the novelist, John Cowper Powys, who used walking as a way of reaching the elemental and magical world of sensation and transformations. By the way, Jeremy Noel-Tod has written an excellent introduction to the figure of walking in the poetry of J.H. Prynne, in Necessary Steps: poetry, elegy, walking, spirit edited by David Kennedy (Shearsman 2007). There is a sense in which walking serves, in all these writers, as a means of reading, of stimulating connections by motion across the path, the past and present.

The poem continues:

Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions, all
contribute to the dislocation of a persistent self interest.

Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant.

The most lonely places are the most lovely.

Walking is egalitarian and democratic; we do not become
experts at walking and one side of the road is as good as

Walking is not so much romantic as reasonable.
The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement.

Here a differentiation is being made between a tourist and a local walker and I take reason to be allied to discovery. It thus implies a movement beyond a Wordsworthian interest in self to a sense of logic as survival. In other words, as a way of discovering how to save the earth from further destruction.

The poem ends:

To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we
can have.

There are walks on which I lose myself, walks which return
me to myself again.

Is there anything that is better than to be out, walking, in the
clear air?

‘To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we
can have.’ thus reminds the reader that, regardless of difference, we are all part of the universe. This is quite close to Gary Snyder’s idea that ‘walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility.’ Clark though moves the terrain to the question of value and venerates walking per se as a step towards radical and alternative value. It is, as it were, a movement attendant to the discovery of the world as it is and outside of self interest. Walking connects us with the physical earth and the distant unknown through the motion of moving forwards. It is also a movement from the actual to the possible in cognitive and human terms.