Poetry and Preservation

Back in March, I wrote a post about four new poems featured on The Compass website, poems written in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. Last Saturday, the very first copies of my new pamphlet of poems went on sale at the Free Verse poetry book fair in London. I will read from it for the first time at the (what is set to be brilliant) Poetry in Aldeburgh weekend festival in early November. The pamphlet, entitled ‘The Days that Followed Paris’ is published by independent Scottish publisher, HappenStance. In the next few weeks I will write posts about various aspects of putting the pamphlet together over the last year.

A fortnight after the attacks, towards the end of November 2015, I approached Helena Nelson (a.k.a Nell) by email and asked if I could send some poems for the December submissions window. I’d previously been sending poems on the theme of living statues and we had corresponded over several windows about my poems, always with Nell’s insightful comments and evidence of close reading with her pencil annotations. But suddenly, I was writing about something else, something more immediate and urgent. I needed somebody to read the poems – now. And thankfully Nell agreed.

I didn’t set out to write poems in response to the attacks. It was when Greg Freeman from WriteOutLoud wrote to me a few days after the attacks to ask me if I had anything to say (look out for my poem ‘What to Say’) that I froze. Did I? What could I possibly say that would bring a new perspective on the endless media coverage? And how could saying something possibly change a thing, or have any kind of added value? But… I did start writing, and the following fortnight was taken up with little else but making notes, collecting thoughts, fragments, stories, trying to gauge my feelings, listening to others.

The question that troubled was: Should I write about the attacks? Did I have permission to do so? Was it right – or was it opportunistic, self-indulgent, in bad taste? After all, I was at home that Friday night and on the other bank of the river – the Left Bank, which was that night, by chance, the right bank to be on. I wasn’t harmed or injured, hadn’t died. I wasn’t out enjoying myself. I wasn’t affected. Or was I?

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In the days that followed, the whole world was affected. Not least the city dwellers of Paris. This was evident when venturing out. Public spaces were closed. Streets were emptier. Heightened security. So much uncertainty. So much trying to make sense.

In January I wrote to Nell, having looked at what I’d written with a little recul. By then I’d stopped writing. Anything I attempted failed, felt unauthentic, because I no longer experienced that same incredible intensity of fear. As I wrote to Nell:

‘I talked to a few people over Christmas about the whole issue of writing about the attacks, and admitted I was hesitant. The general consensus from non-poets and poets alike is that we can only seek to interpret or record the public through the personal. We all experience these terrible events and strive to make individual sense of them. Much we experience through the news and social media, not to mention the atmosphere of the street. So it is valid to record this, and I should give myself permission.

‘I came across some interesting thoughts from Larkin too, in a chapter from a second-hand book I picked up from wonderful Berkeley Books here in Paris (Nine Contemporary Poets by P. R. King 1979). King says: ‘He [Larkin] has written of poetry as an act of preservation, a way of defeating time’:

I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art. (H. Peschmann, ‘Philip Larkin: Laureate of the Common Man, English, 24 (Summer 1975), p. 51.


4 thoughts on “Poetry and Preservation

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  1. Hello Paul, very interesting to hear your doubts and uncertainties about the issues of responding to public events like this. That quote from Larkin is one I copied into my commonplace book when I was a student and has stayed with me and been put into my materials for students about what i poetry is often in my teaching years. So good to be reminded of it. I look forward to seeing your new pamphlet and there is achance I may be able to get to Aldeburgh that Sunday via Hannah’s in Norwich. Will confirm nearer the time.

    All good wishes and love


  2. Hi Paul, our lives have been a little complex recently, so I’ve hardly looked at my blog and only started reading this a couple of days ago. I immediately went onto the HappenStance website and my copies of The Days That Followed Paris arrived this morning. The whole pamphlet is a beautifully produced piece of work and the writing almost trembles with the uncertainty that filled those days. I understand your hesitation in writing about events which you didn’t experience directly, but your title is perfect because you (and even we across the channel) experienced the days that followed. I stayed up nearly all night unable to turn off the news. The other reason I understand is that I was writing Unseen Unsung (which opens with two people stuck under a collapsed building) when 9/11 took place. I stopped writing this story for a year then, when I took it up again, I could not stop the story heading towards 9/11 events. I did everything I could to avoid it, as I felt it was too important to feature in a novel and not mine to ‘use’. In the end I gave up and let it come, time had passed and others had written about it by then. I shall give my other copy of The Days That Followed Paris to a very special friend.

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