On poetry, inspiration and other things.

I've had Robert Burns on my mind for the past few weeks, mainly because I've been working on a sequence of new poems with a Burns theme. I've always loved the poet and his work, or perhaps that should read the poet in his work. When we first moved up here, when I was a thirteen year old romantic, before age and cynicism got to me, we lived not too far away from Burns Cottage in Alloway, the poet's birthplace. I used to walk there on fine saturday mornings and loiter in the cottage, hoping for a sight of a ghost who remained all too elusive. Sometimes I would vary it by wandering along the nearby banks and braes o' Bonnie Doon, or across the auld brig, over which Tam O' Shanter's grey mare Meg leapt and 'brought off her master hale but left behind her ain grey tail.' It was all grist to my own poetic mill which was grinding fast and furious back then. Later, I persuaded my father to drive me out to Mauchline, Mossgiel and further afield to Ellisland in Dumfriesshire.
Later, I had a couple of collections published, as I have related elsewhere on this blog, and even won Arts Council awards for them. I was on my way. My head was as full of potential poems as an egg is full of meat. I loved doing readings, never minded standing up and speaking in public (still don't) although I was also writing for radio, so envisaged myself being a poet and a playwright for ever and ever and exploring a million ideas.
Then, about thirty years ago (yes, I can be that precise about it - and I was still quite young!) I stopped writing poetry altogether. I wrote plays, lots of them, and books of various kinds, fiction and non fiction, stories, articles, reviews, all sorts of things. Was reasonably successful. But it's hard to describe the feeling I had whenever I tried to write a poem. Actually, most of the time, I didn't even try. Whenever I attempt to analyse it myself, even now, I - who love to describe things - find it almost impossible to relate what happened. The nearest I can come to it is to say that a door slammed shut in my head. I was going through a bad patch, that's for sure. I was in a sense, fighting for my survival, and I think now that my mind, spirit, what you will, had to throw out baby and bathwater together, as a way of preserving my sanity! Something had to go, some sensitivity - and the poetry went with it. And it worked, because I was fine.
It was, I suppose, like a door to a garden. Or something wilder than a garden, a landscape, something complex and enticing and uncircumscribed. It was out there. A place of endless possibilities. But like Alice, grown large and clumsy, I could no longer go there. I knew it still existed, remembered it with nostalgia, and a certain amount of impatience, but it was quite beyond my power to access it.
Over the years though, I found that I was becoming less and less happy with a great deal of what I was writing. I wrote several plays where my inclination was increasingly to pare down, weaving images and meanings together. Line endings mattered. The rhythm of the words mattered. I didn't want to tell everything. Didn't want to be obvious. Sometimes people would 'get' it and sometimes they wouldn't. But I think it was something in me that very slowly, very surely, was nudging me back towards that door, that key, that old beloved landscape.
Last year it came back. Why? Well, I could give you a million possible reasons, to do with the stars, and a certain holy well, and a resolution of some kind and sources of inspiration and muses. But in reality, I think it was just time, and all it needed was a trigger, and eventually, inevitably, it came.
Since then I've been writing poems. Lots of them. Some are - obviously - better than others. I have a lot of catching up to do.
But the most fruitful source of inspiration at the moment, has been Burns himself. My last stage play was called Burns on the Solway. It had mixed reviews, ranging from ecstatic to appalled. (I favour the ecstatic ones myself!) But I was aware, even as I was writing it, that it wasn't saying all that I wanted to say - nor was it saying it in the words I wanted to use.
The voice that was consistently in my head was Jean Armour, not Rab. She had always been in my head, ever since those childhood days at Ellisland. And even more, later, when I had read scholarly accounts of her 'unsuitability' to be the wife of such a man. Burns scholars (particularly men) have always been more attracted to the likes of Highland Mary who loved him and then conveniently died. Never underestimate how engrained is this fantasy in certain male psyches - the tragic mistress who either kills herself, or dies horribly, like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary - a sad memory who need never trouble her lover with her lingering, ageing presence. And then of course, there's Clarinda, beautiful, teasing, ultimately unavailable so not his problem. Ae fond kiss and then we sever. Nothing becomes a woman like the leaving of her.
But a wife - one who got children, got untidy, got tired, got fat, got wrinkles, who loved him and understood him all too horribly well, who was helplessly, physically attracted to him but not above laying about her with a ladle - oh that would never do for the scholars. And yet, and yet - I have always been fascinated by Jean, admiring her to the point of obsession.
So although my new poems began, like my play, with Burns on the Solway - and unashamedly borrowed some of my own imagery - the more I have written, the more I have found myself writing in Jean's voice with little excursions elsewhere - when, for instance, Nancy McLehose herself, and latterly Jessy Lewars had something to say. The picture that is emerging is beginning to intrigue even me. I may post the odd poem on here, but they are very much works in progress at the moment. More as it happens.

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