Guest Blog: Writing for radio
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

A different skin

Perhaps because I was rash enough to embark on explaining Why Modern Poetry is Worth It to an assortment of people who don't think it is, or perhaps because because I've been swapping some of my old poems with a friend, a poem occurred to me yesterday for the first time in a very long time. Not the whole thing, of course: it hasn't “arrived” all in one, as stories sometimes do. It's a powerful (to me, anyway), purely visual abstraction from a lifetime of taking photographs, and a conviction that there's more to it than at the moment I understand. “No ideas but in things”, William Carlos Williams said, but I've yet to find the things by which I can really have this idea.

Abstraction is a problem, of course, if you're of the Bill Carlos W. school, which on the whole I am. And in trying to ground a general idea in particularity it's horribly easy to end up with a cheap, slightly strained, Thought-for-the-Day type jump from an anecdote to some homespun philosophy. That it's visual is another problem (and means that maybe I won't get anywhere with it, just as sometimes you simply can't make a sight gag work in a novel). It doesn't help that I'm not much of a poet, so you needn't worry, I won't be posting my efforts here any time soon. But the fact that it is a poem interests me.

What makes it a poem, not something which I can put into a novel? The work in progress, for me, is like a great big pot on the back of the stove, into which I toss all sorts of things, suitable and unsuitable. (Sometimes I have to fish the unsuitable back out again, mind you, and adjust the seasoning). In the fridge is a smaller pot into which goes anything that looks like stuff for the next novel. But this isn't one of those things. Perhaps it's because it's a short idea... but it isn't a short story idea either: when I start trying to apply it to the business of how people work (which is the basic stuff of fiction) it's like painting oils on running water. But I think it's also because I've been reading poetry and not just thinking about how it works in the technical sense, but readying myself to let it work on me.

I've long known that if I'm somewhere new, somewhere I've gone (consciously or unconsciously) in order to experience new things, I can either see  photographs, or hear words, but not both. And this week I'm in that kind of place: see the photograph below. Trying to move between the two is like what I imagine it would be to live bilingually in two languages which are fundamentally different not just in grammar and vocabulary, but at the conceptual level: Chinese and Spanish, say. Indeed, it was trying to make a different photograph work which printed the idea on my mind.

Mexico Backup & Kinross 1 149 I think what's happened is that because of the talking about it, I'm more open than for ages to that kind of numinous air on my skin, that transcendant-and-immanent paradox where poetry lives (which paradox is why any attempt to analyse why it works, as opposed to explaining how it works, always seems hopelessly reductive). I'm not sure it's a thinner skin than my story-writers' skin, but it's definitely different. And I'm beginning to feel, too, as if I don't see photographs with my eyes, but with my skin. I certainly know that there's a fundamental difference between the nice record of places I've been – the holiday snaps like this one - and my real photographs: the ones when I turned a corner, or opened a door, and with a thrill up my spine saw the elements aligned like the stars in their courses: their rhyme and rhythm; the textures which echo and counterpoint; the shapes and structures; the dark and light.