The walk among woods and words

for Mary Lynn Richardson

by Charles Cameron


Walking among trees in England, I have seen beech, oak, chestnut, and birch: and a poem might recount such a walk among trees, and name them.

This poem might tell you about the chestnut tree which stood outside our house in a "sixpence" of grass about which our car turned, and the pleasure of peeling the "conkers" out of their spiky outer skin and polishing them, mahogany with a soft, lighter "yolk", then piercing and stringing them for a vicious shoolyard game in which a snap of the wrist "smacked" the opponent's conker so that it split, winner destroys all...

And the poem might tell you about the lightning-blasted oak in the meadow, over a gate and just fifty steps away from the chestnut, with a blackened hole that a child could climb to, hide in -- or an owl -- and the crows that infested that tree, and the misteltoe high and inaccessible in its crown in winter.

Let's call it a "story poem". Its main purpose would be to remain faithful to the experiences of childhood, of trees in this case, and since the chestnut and the oak were near one another there in East Horsley, Surrey, one just outside and one just inside the fence that separated Effingham Towers -- where Ada Countess of Lovelace had lived and perhaps written her celebrated piece on Babbage's Analytical and Difference Engines -- from our own more modest home and the rest of the world beyond it, chestnut and oak would be the trees it named.

Now, walking among words in England, I see beech and birch: and another poem might shape itself around these two words, these two trees...

Beech and birch stand next to one another not by physical proximity in the Horsley woods but by musical proximity in the dictionary. And as I look further into them, I find "copper" beech and "silver" birch -- which doubles their "language" proximity in a way which prefigures my interest in the Glass Bead Game.

Let's call this a "music poem", and say that its main purpose is to expand on the music of words and ideas that begins with the consonance of "beech" and "birch" and continues through the alchemy of "copper" and "silver" -- as a consonance of ideas.

What I am finding is that my own taste in poems runs to those in which the "music" and the "story" are two strands in one poem, both running the length of it, neither stepping out of the way for the other, a poem "of the walk among woods and words" if you like.

Shakespeare does this, Donne does this, Hopkins, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Cummings, James Merrill.


That's about as close as I can come to a "poetics" at the moment.

I don't say I'm right about this, that every poem has to be "double" in this way: but that's where my own taste lies, perhaps because that's the task I face in writing my own poems, or because that's the quality that allows me to read aloud with the force and compression which I love.

There are poems which do not do this -- I'm thinking of Denise Levertov's "A Tree Telling of Orpheus" here, which is pure story -- which I nevertheless love: but in reading them, I have the feeling that I'm reading story, story masterfully told, but story.

I think the fashions of the day, for reasons not unconnected with Ezra Pound, have been away from what I'm calling the musical, and towards the story -- that the musical has come to be considered a baroque distraction, an unnatural incursion of intellect into the realm of feeling: but I do not feel this way, and cannot write this way myself.

I may be right or wrong, I suppose, quirky or on the money. But my taste is for the marriage of form and content, emotion and intellection, passion and constraint, and the marriage of "woods and words" is very much a part of it.


Sometimes my poetry students bring me poems which have flaws in them, fault lines which I pick up on and feed back to them, and they tell me I've hit on faults in their lives, poorly paved over, always threatening to tear apart, to reveal some personal instance of the abyss. A poetry class can come very close to therapy in those moments...

But I have also had poetry students who wrote "story poems" that were clear as a stream, no faults in them. What do I say?

I am not sure that such things should be "reset" with a strand of music. I find "no fault in them" -- so why should I suggest any change in them? I praise them, first, though less than I would praise weaker poems, working on some instinctive rule which says that the best deserve the fiercest attention. Perhaps I then talk about the walk, perhaps not. Perhaps I wait until the subject has cleared, until we are "onto" something else, and only then bring in my walk among woods and words.

But when I see Michael Bradburn's "Canticum Mysterium", when I read:

They are both here,
in this room:
              the unforgettable
and the forsaken,
and abyss,
            lashed and balanced
by the dream.

I find that I am in the realm I am calling "doubled", the realm where both walks coexist.

Take those two words, "unforgettable" and "forsaken": they have the "for" syllable at their core, they balance as words at the same distance from the center of language (cat, tree, spoon) towards its periphery (anaclastic, cataplasmic), and in conjunction they describe the two final terms of love -- that which has been so deep etched in memory that it can never be expunged, and that which has been so wrenched in memory that one passion has completely overwritten another: steadfastness and betrayal.

In sounding those two words, reading the poem aloud, one sounds opposite emotions on the breath, the rib cage expands and contracts to meet them... and again with "river" and "abyss"... the two words in each case "lashed and balanced"... as, here, meaning and music too are "lashed and balanced".

This is the point, in placing words on the breath, in giving them voice, where at last the poet's voice dictates the possibilities: here I am no longer telling a tale with an emphasis of my own choosing, so much as surrendering to the demands of the language, of the minute language choices which themselves are words, worlds.

Shakespeare's "insult, exult" in As You Like It:

Who might be your mother,
That you insult, exult, and all at once,
Over the wretched?

does the same thing: and it is for me the hallmark of the poet, this lashing and balancing.

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