You can read my poem, Vardøger, on The Poetry School website. A big thank you to them for posting it.
Hello all, the new Live Canon anthology is available to buy on Amazon. In it you’ll find a new poem by Geraldine Clarkson, ‘After If–‘; Isabel Rogers’ ‘Boys in the Storm’; my poem, ‘Labyrinth’, and lots more besides. All the poems have been shortlisted for the annual Live Canon competition and the winning poem will be announced on the 22nd of November after a performance by the Live Canon troupe. Go to livecanon.co.uk to find out more.
This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.
The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.
Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.
Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.
Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.
This fog has been with us forever,
cross-hatched with rain.
Conifers struggle in the wind.
Removal men haul furniture in hi-vis gear
on the other side of the coombe
where wet tarmac reflects high beams.
Cars leave the suburbs.
Soup bubbles on the hob.
I give it a stir. New steam
rises in silence: a constant mist
that, when looked at, is nothing but
Not long ago, I submitted six poems to the Primers scheme launched by Nine Arches Press and The Poetry School. These were shortlisted and I was invited to submit twenty poems for consideration by the judges, Kathryn Maris and Jane Commane. It’s a great scheme, offering a year of mentoring and the chance to give readings at a few events. We’ll see what happens. A book of shortlisted poems will be available.
Also, my poem, ‘Labyrinth’, has been shortlisted for this year’s Live Canon International Poetry Competition. It will be performed, alongside other shortlisted poems, by the Live Canon retinue at Greenwich Theatre on the 22nd of November. Isabel Rogers, a great poet who I first met through the Live Canon comp., has also been shortlisted with her poem, ‘Boys in the Storm’.
You can read and listen to painter-poet Hugh Greasley’s ‘Water Tasting’ on the Chalk Legends website, as well as ‘Rendzinia’, and ‘Native Habitat’. All three poems will feature in our upcoming pamphlet, The Chalk Path, but ‘Water Tasting’ is a good introduction to Hugh’s work. It combines his imaginative inversions of the everyday with his talent for lyricism: painting with words.
- Keep flowers on your desk.
- Do things when you feel like it.
- Open the window to feel the breeze and hear life going on outside.
- Try a ‘to do’ list of things you can do for others.
- Cut away the trivial but pay attention to the small.
Joe, Hugh, and I are publishing our third shared poetry pamphlet very soon. Our hope is to have it coincide with the Chalk arts and literary festival in Winchester, which starts on Saturday.
The Chalk Path is the final instalment in our trilogy of pamphlets, which began with The Inner Sea in 2012. Earlier this year we published, The Tide Clock. Publishing a shared collection is a great way for poets to collaborate on a project, experiment with the format, and inspire each other. You can also benefit from exposure to each other’s audiences.
While The Inner Sea began our journey at the ocean, and The Tide Clock continued our journey to the fringe of land and sea, The Chalk Path concludes our odyssey inland, drawing on chalk hills and paths known to us, as well as themes of blankness and absence. The cover painting of Danebury Ring is another by multi-talented Hugh.
Where we might go from here is an open question. The trio of pamphlets seems complete, at least for now, and we may concentrate on publishing independently, or collaborating in a different format.
An experiential exploration of movement within the landscape, taking you beyond maps to the cries of buzzards, the feeling of chalk dust on fingers and the glimpse of a white horse.
If You Fall In You Will Be Walking Home
Urban Bee Keeping
Living With a Writer
The Chalk Path
Garden of Opposites
The Lady of the Lake
Here’s one of mine from The Chalk Path:
Golden Cap is less brilliant now,
greenery mars its white pyramid, a sign
of climate change, or that our names for things
barely touch the things themselves.
We’ve always been walking this chalk path
and yet we take a Saturday out of the rush
of making our life the way we want it
before it’s over just to live. Just to feel
our footprints on the chalk, this blank grit.
The path we started on, an unfinished thread,
depends on billions of long-dead coccoliths
too small and short-lived to have ideas about living
yet they’ve shaped the land. Shy ammonites
also lie buried in this blank necropolis,
breaking free during an occasional storm.
Whether or not they ever came out of themselves
during their turbulent lives, they’re still here,
solid enough to walk on. It’s we who are ghosts.
Interesting that in dreams we seem to have a self – whether that be a butterfly or a WWII soldier – though we have no physical body, and the world around us is a tottering, malleable palace. It’s as though the mental machinery that constructs our everyday perception of self and other can at last be seen making shapes out of the mist.
There was a great piece in Tricycle recently, A Gleeful Foreboding, excerpted from Clark Strand’s book Waking Up To the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age. Strand describes what happened when his town near the Catskill mountains was bumped off the grid by a hurricane.
That the larger storms sometimes turn deadly does little to chasten our feelings of anticipation. Part of it is the knowledge, gleaned from a century of experience, that things will soon go back to normal. Another is the paradox of media reports, which transform terrible events into a form of nightly entertainment while pretending to inform. In the meantime, provided no one we know has suffered harm, there’s some comfort in having nature force our hands. It feels good to release our death grip on the steering wheel, and take up the snow shovel instead.
He talks about the relief of darkness re-entering the world: a reconnection with natural rhythms enabled by disconnecting from the on/off plugged-in culture. This got me thinking of how our technology doesn’t respect the natural cycles of the body and the planet. When you check your email before going to bed, the colour temperature of your screen is 6500k – blue light that your body interprets as midday sun. Of course, it’s not always practical to hope for a hurricane to send you back to the 1800s. To stop sleep-bothering perma-noon screens messing with your circadian rhythm, you can try a program I’ve been using for a few years now. Flux will lower the colour temperature of your display gradually as sunlight fades, decreasing its impact on your body clock.
And this talk of cycles brings me to a sort-of experiment I’m currently engaged in. Thanks again to Tricycle, I’m taking an online course looking at the Buddhist Pali canon. One of the interesting things about this course is that it’s structured around the phases of the moon. It began on the recent new moon. Tomorrow will be a waxing moon and the second batch of material will become accessible; on the full moon, the third batch; on the waning moon… you get the idea.
This lunacy has the interesting effect that when I look out of the kitchen window of an evening, I see a sliver of moon hanging above the hills and fields and think ‘oh, the next part of the course is almost here’. What may seem a ridiculous abstract conceit (I suspect my wife thinks so) feels in some ways more natural than our usual means of time-keeping. Even if it is slightly hard to tell when exactly the moon is half-way between new and full. How much more humane to adopt the lunar calendar for project management and render our deliverables up to the milestone gods when the moon is slightly fatter than half-full. I am digging it.
But back to Strand, his secret love of storms, and what I really want to say — he goes on to talk about a love of walking at night, how he clambered over trees felled by the hurricane. And how his neighbours, who knew of his nocturnal bimbling, now sought to join him on nightly walks, having no light to read by and presumably having exhausted alternatives. I share his view, having often enjoyed apocalyptic weather while looking out of an office window with the impression that, now, something was actually happening.
I also am fortunate to have had for a long time a group of friends willing to hike through woods and over hills at night – sometimes after an ale or two, or five; sometimes just because we can. There are good reasons for doing this. The world becomes unfamiliar again. You take special consideration of your surroundings – what you can see of them. Sounds are different: you hear owls hooting, scuffling in undergrowth, distant cars. The sights are different: you see stars, bats, moonlight and the shadows it casts of tree branches, and of yourselves. Conversation turns to subjects that are earthier, more fundamental to us, truer in some ways. Perhaps we talk honestly of things we would not say with sunlight on our faces when we, like the rest of the world, are shadow.
On a couple of occasions, I have mixed the excitement of a storm and a night walk. I remember walking up to Clent’s four standing stones many years ago in the middle of a rainstorm with a particularly hardy friend. As we went, we made our customary jokes about Harry-Ca-Nab, the devil’s huntsman who was said to ride over Hagley Woods and that area in a storm. It’s an example of The Wild Hunt: a mythology that appears in various places all over Europe, perhaps as a way of dramatising the uncanny wildness of night when married to the power of a storm. Perhaps also a wise warning. Awareness is sharp; the limbic system and imagination are on overtime. For me, Harry-Ca-Nab is in those woods and stalks them in every storm. As I write of it now, the images come from the same pool of imagination and memory.
In any case, we pressed on to the four standing stones at the top of the hill. From there we had a good view of the surrounding hills and the town where we lived. As we’d walked, the rainstorm had developed into fully-blown thunder and lightning (knowing us, it’s possible it was that bad when we set out) but we stood between the stones at the crest of the hill for a minute or two, half mad with the scene, I suppose. I called a friend on my new Nokia 3310, which I thought was a good trick. We counted the seconds between flash and thunderclap (far too few). Hey, this storm is pretty close, I thought — as if panoramic lightning weren’t a clue. Sanity dawned on me slowly, as it usually does, if at all, and I became dimly aware of the importance of getting the f**k down off the hill.
I wrote a song about it some months later. So here’s to storms and night walks.