The Ferris Wheel: The Making of a Poem
By Andrew Johnston
I started working at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, just after Christmas Day, 1992. There was no one around; when the sun was out I took a chair out on to the deck, and sat there staring at the view for hours, a book open on my lap. The two-month PEN-Reader's Digest-Stout Research Centre fellowship began with four weeks' leave from my half-time job, and seemed an almost infinite expanse of time. That must be why I arrived at the Stout Centre with such expansive plans. I wanted to start writing a novel that I'd been thinking about for a couple of years—I wanted to get at least a decent first chapter written. But I soon realised that I didn't know enough about the kind of book I wanted to write. The novel remained a cloud from which no rain fell. Other things happened instead.
In a drawer of the desk in Room 11 was a half-eaten bag of Curiously Strong Mints, left there by the previous Fellow. When the bag was finished I bought some more. Sitting in Room 11 sucking on a mint, thinking about nothing in particular, things would drop into my mind as they have a habit of doing, curiously, when you're in that kind of reverie. Correspondences, coincidences, chance comparisons: whether they reveal something about the world or simply something about the frame of mind that brings them into play, these are often the means by which bits and pieces of poems (and sometimes whole poems) arise . . .
The one thing that I knew I was meant to be doing at the Stout was finishing revision of my first book of poems. But it was when I pushed aside the poetry manuscript too—pushed it over on the desk next to the very slim folder containing the germ of my novel—and let my mind wander, that the things started happening for me that made my two months at the Stout such a valuable time.
Shortly after I discovered the Curiously Strong Mints, a new issue of UK poetry magazine PN Review arrived in the mail. The last thing in it was a review by American poet John Ashbery of Landlocked, a book by young British poet Mark Ford. I turned straight to the review—Ashbery is one of the poets I'm most interested in, and I'd never read a review by him before. He rather likes Ford's book: 'Waves of refreshment coming at you, like those "curiously strong mints" you have in England. We know about "strong" poets; attention must now be paid to the "curiously strong" like James Tate and Charles Simic . . .'1 Not only was I astonished and pleased by the 'curiously strong' coincidence, but also at the mention of Simic, another of my favourite poets. Reading something like that is a bit like scanning radio frequencies and suddenly tuning into a wonderful conversation. Having an interest in reading and writing poetry is a bit like being a shortwave radio buff, in some ways (only shortwave fanatics probably communicate with each other more). When you get onto a certain wavelength, all sorts of things concur: the kinds of poets whose work you like, their tones of voice and preoccupations, your own preoccupations. It all happens at once, curiously enough, then you might lose the station for a while—there will be interference from all sort of sources, not least from the demands of having to earn a living. What I loved about being at the Stout was simply the space it provided for me to tune in, to be receptive, to pay attention. It enabled curiosity.
Part of this was being entitled to a university library card. One afternoon in January I gave up whatever I thought I was supposed to be doing in Room 11 and went up to the library's Audiovisual Suite to see what tapes they had of poets reading their own work. Charles Simic's name was on the list, so I handed over my card and sat listening to the laconic, wistful, bleak, mysterious, funny, wise tones of Simic reading his poems:
All my dark thoughts
An abstract street
('Euclid Avenue') 2
There was hardly anyone in the library—mostly just some students who had the holiday job of laboriously shifting whole sections of books from floor to floor, trolley by trolley, as if changing sets between scenes in some epic imperial drama (or perhaps a Peter Greenaway movie). To read Simic on the page is to glimpse a peculiarly baffling and bewitched universe of omens and curses and talking brooms; to sit listening to the poems in his voice, in an almost empty library in January, was to be compelled and surrounded by that universe. (In the background was the knowledge that the slaughter Simic witnessed as a child in Yugoslavia was happening all over again, that the figures of death and starvation and mute horror that stalk his poems were utterly real and at large again.)
I went back to Room 11 and stared out of the window. The way my thoughts and feelings revolved (but made no 'progress') reminded me of the motion of a ferris wheel. I'd been thinking a couple of days before about how many conversations have something of that motion. (I suppose I was having some kind of conversation with myself—who was it that said 'poetry is born of one's conversation with oneself'?) In any case a poem came out of this, from the combination of the image of the ferris wheel and thinking about dialogue and how 'we are what we are because of the people, real or imaginary, with whom we have talked'3 and from having listened to Simic. The poem attempts deliberately to imitate Simic's tone:
It was on the ferris wheel
the art of conversation.
I was fourteen;
How high it is, up here, she said
I could see my name
The poem took only a few versions to arrive where I wanted it (most of mine take dozens). The title arrived quickly, too—I thought I'd call it, tongue in cheek, 'How to Talk'. At the time I didn't have a title for my book of poems, and after I'd written down the title of this poem I realised how appropriate it might be (in an equally tongue-in-cheek way) to the whole book, which has several poems about talking and listening and misunderstanding. I was pleased with the way, as a title, it might mock the demand that a young poet 'find a voice'. I'm not sure if I have found a voice yet, but I liked the idea of a book that not only pretended to have found its voice but also pretended to be able to teach you how to use yours—and ended up giving you just a pair of tongue-tied teenagers on a ferris wheel.
I wrote other new poems for a few weeks, some of them quite new, some grown from seeds in my notebook. Instead of revising some poems in my manuscript that I wasn't satisfied with, I simply dropped them and put these new ones in. And in the receptive mood that the empty, silent January campus encouraged, I was unusually aware of the process by which poems were coming about: I think I learnt a few more small things about writing, about the importance of curiosity and trusting the imagination.
When I first started writing poems for my own pleasure, I was about the age of the kids on the ferris wheel, and all I thought I was doing was playing with words—trying to write things like Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (mostly rather innocent). Later on though—after several years of being taught books—I think the idea got into my head that writing poetry was some kind of transcendental experience. After all, poems mostly seemed to be about the transcendental (or its absence), so it followed that their authors had been in some kind of heightened mood when they wrote, and that all I had to do was get into the same kind of mood and poems would result. The culture encourages this kind of attitude with its talk of 'creativity'—as if the author or artist is a little god who 'originates' things inside himself or herself, instead of recombining pre-existing things to make new things. (As Jacques Barzun points out in an essay called 'The Paradoxes of Creativity', the difference is a bit like the conflict between creationists and evolutionists. 4) The result is that when people sit down to write poems they often think that all they have to do is get a bit worked up about the meaning of life and put some words down on paper, words which because of the circumstances of their birth are automatically and magically invested with significance and wisdom. It's even considered bad form to change things— 'I thought I'd leave it like that because that's the way it came out'.
It took me quite a long time to realise fully that poems (like poets) are made, not born. ('Poem' is—helpfully—from the Greek, 'a thing made'). And they're made out of already existing things, by the imagination, which—like the processes of evolution—needs material to work on: things seen, and heard, bits of other poems, songs and dreams and stories. At any one time the amount of material present to consciousness is potentially enormous—the number of things immediately available, and as recent experience, and as recollection: the readings of the million dials whose needles hover in the mind. Poems are composed of 'takes' on the world, by which I guess I mean one's perception of the world, the world filtered through one's thoughts and feelings about it, and through language—'takes' and 'mis-takes'. Perhaps what we need to do is replace 'creativity' with 'curiosity', to be endlessly curious about the world and about consciousness, and not to worry about how curious the results of our imaginative investigations might seem. 'Curious' is from the Latin curiosus, 'careful': perhaps (to go beyond poetry for a moment) our curiosity might teach us better to take care of ourselves and of the world, to be 'curiously strong' by paying attention, as in Jenny Bornholdt's recent poem, 'Please, pay attention'5:
Be wild and curious. The
'The secret wish of poetry is to stop time,' says Charles Simic. 6 The illusion of a poem can be that everything is happening at once: the imagination holding close, or leaping invisibly between, all the things that it curiously regards. I don't think Richard Rorty (an 'anti-philosophy' philosopher) is exaggerating when he says 'the imagination, not reason'7 offers the best ways to investigate our lives: by paying attention to the new combinations of images and ideas that chance can bring together in an instant, by letting the mind wander and taking seriously the new paths it chances upon.
How does that happen? How does the imagination work? Mysteriously. One can only use analogies—which of course is what the imagination does, sliding from metaphor to metaphor. (Metaphor is not rhetoric, it is how the mind moves.) Towards the end of my time at the Stout, I read a review of some books about Complexity Theory which seemed to offer an analogy for the way the imagination produces new things:
Complexity scientists speak of a 'space' of rules or patterns of interaction. In one large region, there is simple, repetitive, passive order. In another, there are the shattering cascades and unserviceable intricacies of chaos. In between, the edge of chaos, 'a special region unto itself', lies an area where rules become optimally powerful and 'creative' (in some dubious sense of the word). If you write a computer program consisting of rules designed to solve certain problems, allow them to modify themselves as they go along, and retain the modifications that make them more efficient, they migrate to the edge of chaos, in a handsome phrase. Here they achieve their optimal form, and tout n'est qu'ordre et beautŽ, as Baudelaire, himself often over the edge, remarked. 8
That seemed to me to capture remarkably well what the process of writing poetry feels like—perhaps because my favourite poetry (the kind I like to read and the kind I hope to write) often teeters on the brink of chaos: it's the price you have to pay for taking account of the complexity that results from simultaneity. At this edge things make their own kind of sense, which takes a little patience to tune into—often it looks more like nonsense, and does its work by leaping the turnstiles of the rational mind. And there's always the danger that you have strayed, without knowing it, into the region of pure chaos, where no reader will find you and where you will only have certain Language Poets for company.
(I already had, as many people do, my own less abstract analogy for the places the imagination can take you—a real place, a place I go sometimes when I'm meant to be doing something else. If you walk into Wellington's Botanic Gardens and take all sorts of unlikely turnings, you might end up on a little curving path beside which are planted six cork oaks, Quercus suber, SW Spain and Portugal, clothed in bubbling cork whose beautiful and slightly eerie texture could lead you to believe that running your hand over it might instantly transport you somewhere wonderful, a SW Portugal of the mind perhaps.)
John Ashbery's poetry is all about letting the mind wander, and about simultaneity, and he finds these things in Mark Ford's book Landlocked, ending his review by referring to 'a wintry world, ours in fact, where the beautiful and silly simultaneity of whatever is happening in it at a given moment has never been more touchingly, more joyously expressed.' 9 I wanted to read Ford's book after that—perhaps it would enable me to stay on the same wavelength for a little longer—but was pessimistic about getting hold of it. A few weeks later, however, I was browsing through the poetry shelf at Unity Books and spotted Landlocked. I read it that evening. I don't think I liked it quite as much as Ashbery did, but I was pleased to find there some familiar things, some images that must bounce around on that particular wavelength:
And then the approach of evening
1. John Ashbery, 'By Indirection' PN Review 89, January/February 1993, p 63
2. Charles Simic, Selected Poems 1963-1983, Revised and Expanded (George Braziller, New York, 1990) p 128
3. Richard Rorty, 'In a Flattened World', London Review of Books 15, 7, April 8, 1993, p 3
4. Jacques Barzun, 'The Paradoxes of Creativity' in The Best American Essays 1990, ed Justin Kaplan (Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1990) p 21
5. Sport 9, Spring 1992, p 6
6. Introduction to The Best American Poetry 1992, ed Charles Simic (Collier, New York, 1992) p. xiv
7. Rorty, op cit, p3
8. Galen Strawson, 'Let's have a bit of order', The Independent on Sunday Review, February 21, 1993, p 25
9. Ashbery, op cit, p64
10. Mark Ford, Landlocked (Chatto & Windus, London, 1992) p 14
© Andrew Johnston