It might seem self-evident to state that the world changes around us, and that we have to change with this or even attempt to go in advance. The same is true in writing, where publishing trends at any point in time may tend to favour particular themes, styles or techniques, and experimental writers in particular may want to strike a new previously untrodden path, style or approach.
This requires being in tune with the world, and keeping up to date with what is happening around – in life generally and the writing sphere specifically. As a writer, I know this in theory. But it’s actually being out on my bike in the real world noticing the seasons’ subtle shifts across what I’d previously have believed one fairly unchanging landscape that really bring this home to me. These observations also highlight the significance of paying close attention to even the smallest details – in a poem as in the scene around me.
The canal and rivers Salwarpe and Severn rise in level and turn a milk chocolate colour following heavy rain, or a few days after heavy snowfall thaws. The tow path by Hawford Lock, where the canal meets the River Severn, often becomes swampy. My progress then is like an earthbound version of a lone bird flapping into gale force winds. This is a feeling that I can also get when writing, a mostly solitary endeavour except in the research or feedback stages. I enjoy the total immersion that this allows but immersion can easily turn to a sense of frustrated isolation when trying to sort out problems in a tricky poem or manuscript, or submitting a piece for publication having previously been rejected n times. Hope has to be one of a writer’s closest companions.
Meanwhile, back on my bike in the Worcestershire countryside, storms leave leaf sludge, brittle twigs and even broken branches encroaching across the tarmac of my usual road route from Droitwich’s Crutch Lane out to the A448 between Bromsgrove and Chaddesley Corbett.
Fields change colour too. As the year progresses, furrowed red/brown soil becomes dotted with early shoots like rows of green French knots on a new tapestry’s bare canvas. Some months later, I enjoy the swish of golden corn, yellow buzzing of rape seed, blue waves of linseed… Grass areas grow greener, longer and lusher, sometimes dotted with daisies or buttercups as well as sheep. In sunlit breezes, gentle inclines are like tame animals purring as they’re stroked. In stronger winds, the same grass fur rises in hackles. Sooner or later, each change, each metaphor, I try to embroider has to give way to another.
Come autumn, the persistently vibrant green golf-course slopes dip into shallow drifts of red and orange leaves. Other patches of grass brittle. Fields nibbled by sheep and weather thin back to flattened patches, wind-battered bristles and squelched mud. Harvest fields return to stubble and black bales. Ditches along the lanes become half-full troughs of muddy water that’s as opalescent as squeezed moonstone and early sunsets can turn pothole puddles to molten gold.
In winter, hedgerows, fields and trees turn starker and barer – except not entirely. I pass the Timberhonger Lane turn-off towards Bromsgrove and begin a crescendoing series of climbs to where Berry Lane meets the A448. The homes and holiday lets here all hint at the area’s heritage: The Milking Parlour, The Hayloft, Old Caldwell Dairy, Risingbridge Field Cottage…
As I cycle up Berry Lane, a thriving lacework of entwining ivy hearts becomes visible along disparate stretches of the roadside. A less heart-leafed ivy thrusts clutches of small black beads: calorie-rich berries which are one of the last available foods for hungry birds over winter. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) also feeds almost exclusively on the flowers of English ivy (hedera helix). But not at this time of the year. Instead, I mostly find blackbirds enjoying the dandelion-clock/baby-fist size clusters of berries that brush my arms when I pause after my final, hardest, slog uphill to The Durrance Holiday Cottages and Durrance Farm. Even these names feel like a gesture towards the surrounding landscape as well as family history. Durrance derives from the Old French ‘Durant’, meaning enduring, from the Latin ‘durare’. It was used in the Middle Ages with the meaning ‘steadfast’ and I associate it too with ‘dur’, the French word for ‘hard’. Hard work pushing on my bike, hard work pushing green into winter or building up new growth underground ready for spring. Endurance is essential!
The same applies to writing. Occasionally, the tricky pieces and rejected submissions I mentioned earlier will be ones I give up. Most often though, they just take endurance in the form of time, continual reassessment and editing until finally they gain a new perspective that helps them shine like the opalescent ditch-water, sunset-gold puddles or even one of winter’s most transformational tools – snow.
When snow falls, flakes speckle the ground briefly before melting, gradually crust hedges, or transform wide areas to a thick and glistening white as dazzling as any summer sunlight sheering off still water, patio tables or drying sheets. Snow also tippexes out many human-marked fences and boundaries – from a distance and temporarily at least.
On days like this, the lie of the land widens, the horizon so much further away than it usually seems. Suddenly, it’s like I’m in Gillian Clarke’s poem ‘Polar’ as it expresses a longing to go back to when ‘the map of the earth was something we knew by heart’, the white bear alive, and they ‘had not loosed the ice, | had not, had not…’ Warning and caring interweave with the poem’s vivid imagery. This final-line ellipsis allows that the ending hasn’t yet been written; there’s still time for action as well as regret.
Although Worcestershire isn’t the Arctic, the shape and atmosphere of the snow-covered hills and valleys make me feel ‘I’m dreaming on the white bear’s shoulder, | paddling the slow hours, my fingers in his fur’. And, if I can feel this as a waking dream now, I have to believe that ellipsis after ‘had not’ can be turned into something positive.
I’ve written a lot here about the seasons and nature. I could describe the nearby transmitting station’s two radio masts on the Dodderhill skyline. I could focus on the two giant fan-like white/twilight-grey wind turbines, or the lines of pylons that resemble wire puppets stealthing mankind’s static across the fields. The manmade world and nature are inseparably intertwined here. Both are potential inspiration for me as a writer. In fact, everything is. I also realise that everything may similarly be transformed or reclaimed by the environment – even a disused phone box.
Background research, bibliography and notes – Part Five
‘English ivy: berry good for birds’, a Guardian article by wildlife gardener Kate Bradbury, can be found at: <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2015/feb/19/english-ivy-berry-good-for-birds>.
Durrance surname <http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Durrance#ixzz53X21Yuzi>.
Just as heavy snow completely transforms a landscape, any poem that finally emerges from a long writing process may be so different to the first draft as to almost seem an entirely new poem.
Clarke, Gillian, ‘Polar’, Ice (Carcanet, 2012), p.9.
Some of the photo-poems in these articles were previously published in: ‘photo syn thesis: an eco exploration of future light earth water’ on Molly Bloom (https://mollybloom17.weebly.com/sarah-james.html, Sept 2018).