On writing ‘Ammonite’, ‘Elegy for Victorian Gasworks’, ‘Near Misses’, and ‘Stitches’ (from Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd).
I would say that these four poems fall neatly into two groups of two: the universal (external), and the personal (internal). Poems in the former category come easier to me than those in the latter. I’ve been writing poetry since I was seven years old (yes, really!) and, as an adult poet, I am widely placed and published, with poems that focus on, among other things, art and artists, nature and place, ecology, astronomy, meteorology, mythology, the tensions between the built environment and the natural world, the seasons, and so forth. But it’s only in the past few years that I’ve started to consider my own internal landscape as potential subject matter, along with the external world around me.
‘Ammonite’ and ‘Elegy for Victorian Gasworks’ fall into the ‘universal’ category and, in ways that have surprised me now that I look at the two poems together, share some similar concerns. Both poems explore notions of change over time; of obsolescence versus longevity; of emergence and extinction; and of the fragility of existence.
Fossils hold a great fascination for me. I can barely comprehend the vastness of time that has elapsed between their lives and mine. These creatures inhabited our planet millions upon millions of years ago; and here, scrawled in rock-strata, is their signature: “I was here”. My poem, ‘Ammonite’, examines biological evolution and is a meditation on deep time. The poem is placed quite deliberately on a beach, with sand offering a visual metaphor for the ‘sands of time’, the hourglass that represents time’s passage:
Here on this beach, where history runs deep for those who
care to see, we build castles, plant flags along our sandy
crenellations, defying the odds. […]
In its physical form, however, sand itself consists of ancient particles; but these have fared less well than the lauded fossil, being both more fragile and less celebrated. I intended this poem, with its inevitably short-lived sand-castles, to illuminate the tension between brevity and (relative) permanence; between the smallness and implied unimportance of sand, and the well-preserved and geologically valuable ammonite. I wanted to cast an evolutionary glance backwards, and to raise questions regarding the value – or otherwise – of humanity’s future legacy. Notions of deep time are, for me, profoundly humbling. In writing this poem, I could not help but to think of the opening four lines of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Cupping an ammonite in our hands may be the closest any of us will get to infinity or eternity.
‘Elegy for Victorian Gasworks’ is, by contrast, distinctly urban in its setting and its subject. Since childhood, I have been enchanted by these metal monoliths. Far from being ugly carbuncles, I find them beautiful; some are fancier than others in design, some even whimsical in their intricate iron detailing, but all strike a strangely elegant shape against the sky. As a city-dweller, I have observed the gradual disappearance of Victorian gasworks over the last couple of decades; and have seen a relentless rise in urban skylines, so that these former giants no longer dominate the cityscape in the way they once did, but instead are dwarfed by a new generation of skyscrapers that can be seen from many miles away:
The ballet of your topography slows to vestigial. Filigree
stretches, cranes. The city rises, imperious and foul-breathed.
These skeletal structures that once stored and distributed fossil fuel are, in their own way, fossils themselves. They may be uneconomical and un-ecological, but as a relic of Britain’s industrial heritage, these increasingly redundant coronets take on near-monument status which, for me, deserves to be celebrated.
The construction of the poem on the page, with each stanza decreasing by one line until only a single line remains, is intended to suggest an inexorable physical dwindling. The language in each stanza uses the same, limited, vocabulary, with each stanza being subject to a degree of excision, and the word conjunctions rearranged (sometimes almost to the point of surrealism) to symbolise the seemingly chaotic revolution of landscape that cities undergo. I attend (and have gained a great deal from) Kathryn Maris’s weekly Advanced Class at the Poetry School, and this poem arose in response to a writing exercise exploring linguistic repetition, suggested by visiting guest tutor, Matthew Welton. It challenges received notions that repetition in poetry is undesirable; in fact, linguistic constriction can be an effective tool to convey a sense of compression in the poem and its subject.
The two poems that fall into the ‘personal’ category – ‘Stitches’ and ‘Near Misses’ – were thematically more challenging for me to write, and are considerably more difficult to write about. One poem depicts childhood trauma, while the other explores childlessness, with both poems emerging from painful personal experience. “Stitches” is a narrative poem, written in the intentionally disconcerting register of a children’s story:
The husband and wife made a ragdoll together.
The wife lifted the hem of her wedding dress,
cut strips and circles of ivory satin from her
under-skirts, diligently pinning them together
to form torso, limbs, head. […]
The language is simple to the point of detachment, and the absence of sensationalism provides a vaguely sinister register. Although the poem is strongly imagistic, it is devoid of obvious poetic devices. It is sufficient that the whole poem functions as a metaphor, with the creation of a coveted and ultimately fought-over ragdoll serving to symbolise the emotional pain and psychological damage experienced by the child of a volatile marriage.
The ragdoll is, at the end of ‘Stitches’, literally ripped down the middle by her parents. The poem is bisected across its middle with a line of broken text, creating two distinct parts, the first of which describes the ragdoll’s creation, and the second, her destruction. This structure also provides a visual model for the tearing of the ragdoll into two pieces:
They adored her with a passion, played with her
became limp with loving, grubby with wear.
All I can say is: there were times when that’s how it felt to me as a child. I have great admiration for those poets who can write with searing frankness about personal trauma; but, even now, starting to access and to write about experiences and feelings long-since buried, I can only do so through the filter of a distorting lens. To quote Emily Dickinson, poems such as this ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’.
‘Near Misses’ is a poem about missed opportunities, of being close but not close enough. It’s about being occupied with the small things, at the expense of the big things. It’s a poem about trying and failing, about loss and regret, about dawning urgency and receding options.
Always a minute or two behind,
forever running that bit too late,
and never quite arriving.
It was the first poem I wrote about childlessness, but there have been several since, each poem taking a significantly different – although always metaphorical – approach, with every poem ‘telling it slant’.
I am a fastidious re-drafter, and this poem went through many stages, not least because the choice of narrative viewpoint was problematic. The first person ‘I’ felt overly personal to me, and I was concerned that the poem would appear too introspective to be relatable to a reader; it also implied a greater degree of self-awareness than the poem suggested. Use of the subjective ‘she’ and ‘her’ struck a jarring note, raising questions over who is actually relating the story, with an authorial distance indicating a sense of judgement that I did not intend. Ultimately, I opted for the ambiguity of ‘you’, functioning in this case as both the indefinite pronoun (which so many of us employ when we speak about ourselves: ‘that thing when you…’); and as the subject’s internal address to herself. Experimenting with poetic narrative viewpoint is a useful exercise, and one I’d recommend as a means of interrogating our own poetry and considering poetic intention to a greater depth.
As a professional critique provider, I subject my own poetry to a high degree of critical rigour, and I’ve found it instructive – if uncomfortable – to place these poems under a microscope. Thank-you to John Lavin for inviting me to do so. I hope others may have found something of interest here, too.
Sarah Doyle is the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s Poet-in-Residence, and holds a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway College, University of London. She has been published widely in magazines such as Poetry News, Orbis, The Dawntreader and The Fenland Reed; and in many poetry anthologies. She won the William Blake Poetry Prize in 2015, and has been placed in poetry competitions such as The Frogmore Prize, Poetry on the Lake, Mslexia, Live Canon, Café Writers, York Mix, etc. Sarah has been a guest reader at numerous poetry events in and around London, and is the is co-author of Dreaming Spheres: Poems of the Solar System (PS Publishing, 2014).
Don’t miss Sarah reading these poems at our London event next week.
© Sarah Doyle, 2018. Image © Rob Hudson, 2018.