A piece Of Owning by Gareth Owen
`In addition to reading your poems we’d like you to do a poetry workshop with our third years,’ says the teacher at the other end of the line and the thud is the sound of my heart dropping.
It’s not that I’m against Creative Writing per se, or whatever term is current, rather that I’m sceptical about how much real understanding of the nature of verse writing can be effectively transmitted. Most of the time now I persuade the schools to let me work on prose with small groups of say five or six children. I ask them questions about their lives and then write out a kind of composite, anecdotal narrative so that they can observe something of what goes into the writing of a story. It’s almost impossible to illustrate in any meaningful way what goes on in a writer’s head during the imaginative process but at least with this method they can observe something of the journey we make together; what is retained, what jettisoned and what invented. I also try to persuade them to accept the notion that the use of actual people, places and events in a story does not constitute some kind of cheating.
Imagination is much more to do with selective memory than with mere invention. Thus, I try to encourage in them the habit of accurate recall, vigorously restricting them to providing only observable evidence. At the same time I discourage them from attempting to intuit feelings and emotions, which duty is properly the preserve of the putative reader.
Arthur Miller said a marvellous thing concerning this when talking of Ibsen. He said, `When Ibsen is most concerned with feelings he is most writing about things.’
A writer’s concern is with the ‘thingness’ of the world.
Finally, and this is perhaps most difficult of all, I try to get them to write good, short, simple sentences. A strange sickness grips people when they pick up pen to write imaginatively. They appear constitutionally incapable of writing straightforward, sequential and informative sentences. The language becomes florid; it gestures and flourishes and waves at one so that the matter of it becomes obscured. There seems no cure for this disease. One thirsts for modest information on the lines of: `He opened the door and walked in.’
There is much good sense in Dr Johnson’s advice: `Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’
But poetry. That’s another matter.
In the last few years I’ve been asked to judge a number of competitions and have found the results disappointing. Poem after poem about Spring or Winter or Ghosts or Snow or Fog or Bonfire Night. The language inert and lacking any sense of an individual voice; of any feeling of a real world; false in sentiment and aspiration. Poems like the following which is totally indistinguishable from a hundred, nay a thousand others.
Tall jagged towers reaching towards the blue sky,
Whistling wind through thin arrow slits.
Rippling of the cold dirty water round the castle.
Voices echoing round cold empty rooms.
Sounds of water dripping from low roofs.
Slimey slippery bridges where no one will walk.
Rooms without roofs open to the sky.
This is a kind of non-poem, which perhaps we elders have encouraged by example; poems where each sentence follows the same form, a kind of shorthand, note form with the articles omitted to lend a spurious portentousness to what is being said; where participles search unsuccessfully for conclusions so that what we end up with is the poem as shopping list, where an image or metaphor gains a house point and where there is a straining after sensitivity and feeling that is false and unachieved.
And yet when one talks to young children their language is often vigorous and amusing and they have a wealth of experiences that they enthusiastically describe for us. It’s almost as though they feel that their own experiences provides inappropriate raw material for poetry; that their own speech patterns and nuances of language don’t pass some kind of test.
I have to confess that I’m as guilty as the next man and have worked with classes where we’ve started from a stimulus or where I’ve prefaced their writing with a talk on metaphors and where, if I’d received the above poem from a child in my class, I’d have been relatively pleased. But, visiting schools now as a writer, I feel that these methods are too coercive and the meagre results don’t justify the outlay of hope and energy. Also if I am involved in the writing task I feel more energetic; my attitude is more realistic and enthusiastic and I think the children sense that I’m not playing at it or dispensing desperate praise where none is deserved. And finally, I suppose, somewhere deep down, I believe that one comes to an understanding of poetry (and prose for that matter) only through reading a great deal of both fiction and verse when young; by becoming immersed in various forms of language. There’s no real short cut.
What then do I do when the teachers are so charming and insistent; so convinced of the benefits that a poetry workshop will bring the children, that to refuse seems churlish?
I employ something of the methodology of the prose narrative lesson using, where possible, the words and phrases that the children themselves have offered, thus demonstrating that a poem can be about them; their homes, their streets, their experiences. That it can be expressed in their language and still come out convincingly as that mysterious thing, poetry.
In the group session that follows there were six boys and girls aged ten. I asked them questions and made notes. This is a transcription of our taped conversation followed by the poem that came out of it. The lesson would last about forty minutes.
Owen – How d’you do. Your headteacher has asked me if we can write a poem together. I’m not sure if we can but let’s have a go. What d’you say? Do you think we can?
All – Yes.
Owen – What an encouraging lot. Well the nice thing about coming in as a writer and not being a teacher is that I can say and do what I like. So, I’m going to ask you lots of questions about yourselves – but in the end I’ll write the poem so that you’ll be able to see how I go about it. All right? Agreed?
All – Yes
Owen – Don’t have much choice do you? Right, the first thing we need is a subject. The second thing we need is a good memory. The third thing we need is some talent and the fourth is some paper.
Boy – Sir, shall I get the paper? There’s some here.
Owen – Well that’s a good start. Now, what shall we write our poem about?
Girl – Hallowe’en.
Owen – Boring. That’s always being done. Think of something else.
Boy – Bonfire night.
Owen – That’s been done as well. Anyway let’s do it or we’ll never get started. It’s very important to get started. But very hard. Try to work quickly so that you don’t let doubt creep in. I don’t have much self confidence so I write fast to start with. Just get it all down. The next thing is to carry on, even though you think it’s rubbish. Finishing’s hard too. In fact it’s all hard. Shall we go home? No, right, what I’m going to do is ask you about your particular bonfire night, not a made up one. So I want you to be as accurate as you can and to tell the truth. Now, tell me where you have your bonfire?
Girl – In the garden?
Owen – Where in the garden?
Girl – Bottom.
Owen – Is there a fence or wall?
Girl – Fence. Wooden fence.
Owen – Tell me about the fence. What colour is it? Is it new?
Girl – It’s sort of brown and broken.
Owen – Good. I like that. I’m writing this down. Getting the information. Anybody else have the bonfire in the garden? Yes. Is it near any vegetables or anything?
Boy – It’s near the rhubarb.
Owen – Tell me about the fire.
Girl – It crackles.
Owen – What’s it made of?
Boy – All sorts
Owen – What all sorts?
Boy – Wood. Packing cases.
Girl – We had a chest of drawers on one time.
Owen – Whose? What colour?
Girl – My nan’s I think. It was like whitewood, painted blue.
Owen – Good. Who lights the fireworks?
Girl – Dad.
Owen – I want to see what happens. Describe it to me. Where does he come from? What’s he wearing? Make me see him.
Boy – From the house. He comes from the house with a box of fireworks.
Girl – My dad wears overalls.
Owen – When he sets off the rockets where do they go?
Boy – Up.
Owen – I know they go up. Yes, but where do they explode over?
Girl – The houses.
Boy – Allotments.
Owen – Where?
Boy – Don’t know.
Owen – Let’s invent. But invent like it’s real. Say, Lakey Lane. D’you like that?
Boy – Not much.
Owen – Tough, I’m the poet. Anything else? Mmh. Anybody else there?
Girl – My brother Scott runs around with one of those sparkler things being a nuisance.
Owen – What happens?
Girl – I slap him one and he lies down in the grass.
Owen – Why?
Girl – To hide, he’s crying. If I ask him if he’s crying he says he’s looking at the grass.
Owen – Give me a fancy description of a rocket exploding.
Boy – Lots of colours.
Owen – Boring. You can do better than that. Stop being a stone that I’m trying to get blood out of.
Girl – Like flowers.
Girl – A garden.
Owen – What colours?
Boy – Blue.
Owen – I want really extraordinary colours. Have a look in that Thesaurus and come up with strange colours. See, what I want to do is put something very flowery next door to something very basic and down to earth. I love doing that in writing. It’s a good trick to learn. But don’t ask me why it works. It just does…
Now I want to end this poem on a sad note. That’s the way I feel about it. Now if you want to say something sad, you never use the word `sad’ or you’re doing the reader’s work for them. It’s the reader’s job to feel sad. It’s got nothing to do with you. It’s your job to give them information. Facts. Anybody thought of anything?
Nobody? Thank you. Well, anybody ever found a rocket after bonfire night is over?
Girl – Me.
Owen – Well, don’t just say `me’. Give me the facts.
Girl – My brother and me found one in the playground.
Owen – Was that Scott who cried in the grass?
Girl – No, that’s her brother.
Owen – Sorry I’m sure. Anyway I’ll say it’s him. He won’t mind will he? Tell me about this rocket.
Girl – It’s like cardboard.
Owen – What? Flat cardboard?
Girl – No. Sort of round.
Boy – Yeah you know round.
Owen – She said that.
Boy – Like a cylinder.
Owen – Brilliant. Where?
Girl – Where what?
Owen – Where did you find it?
Girl – He found it.
Owen – Where did hefind it?
Girl – By the toilets in school.
Owen – Good job nobody was in there when it landed. What did it look like?
Girl – It would be burnt. Sort of burnt.
Owen – Twice burnt. Burnt to the power of two.
Boy – More like charred.
Owen – I like charred. Well that’s enough. It’s going to be din din time in five minutes. Let me write the poem. Have you learned anything?
Boy – You put flowery, complicated things next to ordinary things.
Owen – That’s a good thing to learn. If you remember that I’ll be pleased. While I’m scribbling this out – you have a go.
The fire crackles beneath the oak tree and the
Out of the shadows of the house comes Dad
In his boiler suit a box beneath his arm. He lights the roman candle
And it sputters yellow against the bitter rhubarb.
Scott runs round the garden with a sparkler
Trailing crackling stars
Trying to set the grass on fire.`
I slap him and he cries
But hides it
Lying face down.
If you ask him what he’s doing
He’ll say, `Trying to see the grass.’
A rocket whistles up above the roofs
And explodes in a circle of flowers
Over Lakey Lane allotments.
Ann found it three months later
Wedged in the gutters by the bike sheds at school;
A cylinder of charred cardboard
And on its side
In letters half burnt away she read,
Set in a bottle
Light blue touch paper
And stand clear.’
Formerly a teacher, then a Lecturer in Education, Gareth Owen has been a full-time writer since 1985. He is best known for his two collections of verse, Salford Road (Young Lions, 00 672919 3, £1.75 pbk) and Song of the City (Collins, 0 00 184846 1, £4.95; Lions, 0 00 672410 8, £1.95 pbk) which won the 1985 Signal Award for Poetry, but he has also published novels such as The Final Test (Gollancz, 0 575 03699 0, £7.95; Lions, 0 00 672692 5, £1.95 pbk) and The Man with Eyes Like Windows (Collins, 0 00 184546 2, £6.50; 0 00 184547 0, £4.95 pbk). His latest book is Saving Grace (Collins, 0 00 184793 7, £5.95).
Also available is a tape of Gareth reading a selection of his poems, price £4.00 (inc. p&p) from Sunflower Records, Peachwood, New Wells, Abermule, Montgomery, Powys SY15 6JL.