Fay Musselwhite: Why a long poem? Were you drawn to the experience of sustaining a narrative (like a novelist), or was it that the material presented itself as a whole so had to be a long poem?
Matthew Clegg: I wanted room to roam: a form that allowed me scope to move through zones and territories of the world and the personal journey through the world. I wanted something that accommodated all the muddle and clutter and friction of life too: or the movement through that to clarity, or something like epiphany. I think the long narrative poem is much more omnivorous than the short lyric. It has a larger intestine and can stomach more.
There was a personal challenge I’d set myself: can I make this small predicament in this smallish place the subject of a long poem? Do I have the resources to do that? Does the material have enough substance in it? I found plenty of substance. I also felt that it would be merely conventional to have written lots of tidy lyric poems. The longer poem gave me enough sprawl and latitude to break out of certain inhibitions I felt when writing tidy lyric poems. I wanted to depart from the tasteful, polished decorum of much modern lyric poetry. You probably know the type of poem: 12-22 lines long, an even tone, not a word out of place. This wasn’t going to work for my raw material. If I hadn’t read so many long poems from other time periods I might never have tried to push beyond the one-page barrier.
At that time I was under the spell of certain modern long poems. Peter Reading’s Ukulele Music, Derek Walcott’s The Schooner ‘Flight’ and Omeros, Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune. These poems were more satisfying to me than the mainstream, New Gen type collection. They got their hands dirty. They were robust and had a structure that helped develop atmosphere and depth. They were engrossing in the way that a novel is engrossing. They have characters that develop (well, maybe not Reading).
Why has so much modern poetry relinquished narrative to the novel and to film? The oldest stories in our literature are poems: The Odyssey, The Iliad, Gilgamesh etc. Why do so many people now think poetry and narrative are different things? I often hear people say ‘that’s not a poem, it’s a story’, as if something can’t possess the qualities of both. People like rhythms and metaphors and images. People like stories. Why can’t they have both in one thing?
FM: One of my favourite things is your Edgelands sequence. Compared with Edgelands, Lost Between Stations is much longer, it’s in the first rather than the third person, past rather than present tense, and is so much more expansive and loose in its telling. Both characters are, in their ways, lost. Do you see the long narrative poem as being more suited to a young character’s story?
MC: The idea is that it’s driven by the need to speak up. The poem is supposed to be open, communicative. That the tongue runs away with itself – loses control a little – and so inhibitions are cast off and the speaker surprises himself with what he ends up saying. The way a football rolls down a hill road, gaining momentum and bouncing off whatever is in its path. It can get deflected, but it’s going to roll down that hill. ‘The tale unfolds in the telling’ kind of thing.
Writing the poem opened up what I came to feel was my territory as a writer. It was a pioneering effort in my own career. Yes, afterwards came Edgelands, which is related, as are Nobody Sonnets and Officer. These later poems are more lyrical and tightly formal. My technique was improving. I was learning that if you are going to write politically your technique needs to be watertight. Otherwise you will be dismissed for lacking the technique. Usually, people mean the technique of the tidy lyric poem.
But in answer to your question: yes, the long poem felt the most suited to that push into the territory I wanted to lay claim to. I still write the occasional long poem. There are several in The Powerline. They are often pushes into newish territory – rather than polished artefacts. Well, perhaps there is more polish now than there used to be.
FM: How did you arrive at this shape? What challenges did you face in handling this size of material? And how did you settle on form and metre?
MC: The 10 syllable line, 10 line stanza fits in with the idea of the prison cell in part 7. In a sense the stanza is just another box the poet/poem is being pressed to fit in with. But it gave me something to work with and kick against. You will notice that often the units of syntax and the rhythms don’t actually fit in with the line/stanza scheme. There is a tension: an uneasy relationship between form and speech energy. Speech energy is fidgeting like a chimp in a dress suit.
Also, I wanted something that could shift between registers and rhythms: that could sometimes be quite formal, other times rougher or even coarse (like The Canterbury Tales). Not exactly ‘lost between’, but always moving between.
Structurally, I like the idea of the poem being in 7 parts. Coleridge’s The Rime of The Ancient Mariner is in 7 parts. There is that moment in part 6 when the narrator buys dog food for the starving dog – an equivalent, perhaps, to the moment when the Ancient Mariner blesses the sea-creatures. In other regards, the shape evolved quite organically, rather than schematically. The poem starts with the encounter with the old sailor and the Maori song. The close of the last poem is meant to be a kind of Maori song – certainly a kind of fighting talk. So there is circularity. You will notice that ‘talking’ is a big theme. ‘Talking’ or ‘telling’ as an equivalent to action, almost. Perhaps the emphasis is on the almost. Talk can be cheap too. But in many contexts in life it is an essential part of our assertion against the negative pressures of the world. ‘It is how I say it is, not how you say it is.’
Each poem is meant to be self-contained (to a degree), and yet each poem provides an idea or a way of thinking to unlock every other one. For example, part one provides an encounter and a form of dialogue. Part two offers the idea of transformation. Part three is a journey to an underworld, or underclass, or a buried life. Part four offers the idea of a rite of passage, or some kind of growth. Part five muses on a parallel with another text / writer. Part six explores ideas of exposure and drift – of straying and getting back on course. And part seven is about talking or fighting back. Well, you could find nearly all those elements in nearly every section.
The speech energy of the poem is mostly to push against gloss, inhibition, against casual denial and easy dismissal. I love how Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner stops the wedding guest in his tracks and makes him listen to the story. Coleridge said ‘man’s chief intellectual error is denial’. I don’t disagree with that. It’s a simple truth, but you could write books and books on the different ways denial plays out.
FM: Can you call your story an odyssey if it stays put, the world passing it by?
MC: Absolutely yes. Was it Patrick Kavanagh who said ‘the universe begins from where you stand’? The journey can be a journey of thought and feeling – or the search for new thought and feeling. You could go on writing and rewriting this forever. I think of Philip Levine, still writing poems about being a labourer in Detroit over fifty years since he stopped being a labourer in Detroit. Any properly lived or felt experience yields to narrative almost exhaustively.
I’d say infinitely, but I don’t know about that yet. Certainly, Lost Between Stations could be longer. In conception it was much larger than it ended it being. Writing it tired me out: long poems are hard work. Sheer graft sometimes, especially in the edit that comes after the first big push. 10 years down the line and I still can’t ‘perfect’ it. Maybe ‘perfect’ is the wrong word. Perhaps I mean ‘make seaworthy’.
FM: How important is the unhurried pace of delivery to the depths and breadth of insight the long poem can bring to its subject? What is it that you think the long poem can do that shorter, more oblique forms can’t? How conscious were you of making use of a more meandering pace in writing Lost Between Stations?
MC: Well, the long poem can change its pace as it moves through space and time. It isn’t simply about arrested moments, or moments outside time. Like a symphony there are patches that can drag, or patches that suddenly accelerate, but always there is the flow, the movement.
Long poems tend to progress by forward movement accompanied by digressions and steps to the side. As in Byron’s Don Juan. Canto 2 of Don Juan was a key influence. Unfortunately, readers are perhaps less long poem literate than they used to be. Equally, writers need a good rhythmic engine room for long poems. The modern poems in free verse that work – The Waste Land, Howl, some of the Cantos – still have a strong rhythmic element. The early modernists knew about metres and rhythms – they’d done their piano lessons, so to speak.
Most importantly with the long poem is the fact that you inhabit its rhythms and changes of pace. It puts you through something (at one or two stages removed). It might be hard work. When I’m walking I enjoy a sudden view much more if I’ve had to walk 5 miles to get to it. I feel like I’ve earned it – and especially if the territory in between is pretty grim. For me, there is something physical about the long poem. Like a cross-country run. It takes good breathing, mental stamina, and pig-headed determination.
A long poem can have its moments that are oblique too. It isn’t oblique in the manner of an imagist poem, or a fine haiku, but it is oblique in its allusions and parallels with other texts. Some of these parallels are structural.
FM: What else would you like to say about your influences in writing Lost Between Stations?
MC: Well, only that it’s a kind of love letter to many other long narrative poems. I’d been reading the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Homer etc for years. Reading Derek Walcott in the 90s showed me how to make use of the canon – how to have conversations with it in my own poems. The way his Omeros has its conversation with Homer’s Odyssey, for example, or the way his ‘The Schooner ‘Flight’‘ relates to Piers Plowman.
When I went to Grasmere in 1999, Robert Woof gave me huge encouragement to write a long poem that was also a conversation with the Romantics. He was very excited about some of the connections I was making. It was exactly the kind of thing he wanted from the residency. I share his attitude to the canon. It simply belongs to whoever wants to use it. It’s an immense treasure trove. But you can still argue with it: wrestle against its enveloping tentacles. Its politics.
I could talk about Homer all night. I love the idea that in Homer we have two big metaphors for life: The Iliad gives us life as conflict – with the enemy and within the ranks; and The Odyssey gives us life as a journey.
Lost Between Stations is available now from Longbarrow Press (the pamphlet and CD package can be ordered through the Publications page on this site). You can read an excerpt from the fifth poem in the sequence here, and listen to Matthew Clegg reading the first poem on location in Leeds here. Click here to view a short film of the second poem.