Reflections on ‘tales sad, savidj and obscure’ – provenance, processes and influences / Chris Hall

When the editor, John Lavin, asked me to contribute a few words online to supplement poems of mine published in Issues 7 and 10 of The Lonely Crowd, two of which that are  part of a long-term and on-going series, ‘tales sad, savidj and obscure’, I agreed to do so with mixed feelings, as I hardly ever discuss my work in the public arena, either in terms of content or process, largely because as far as I am concerned, the poems are best left to speak for themselves, and partly because, having spent the past quarter of a century in one way another in the realms of academia, teaching in further and higher education, I have developed a Pavlovian suspicion of the abstract intellectualisating of the arts. More importantly perhaps, I have not myself actually studied literature per se, nor undertaken any in depth research in linguistics or semantics, and probably felt that I possessed neither the rigour nor objective distance so to do.In fact, when I come to reflect on the poems I have produced over the decades, I begin to realise that the areas of visual art and music, as I set out in a more detailed way later, have had a greater bearing and influence on their creation than any conscious reference to the written word. There are, however, two significant exceptions, namely a couple of short poems by Thomas Hardy, ‘When I Set Out for Lyonesse’and ‘The Self Unseeing’, both of which engaged me in early adolescence to an almost obsessive extent.

What excited me about them was their strange quality of both strong narrative power, yet air of timelessness and existential infinity, which, though they be brief in terms of actual length, imbued them with a contradictory epic quality that evoked alchemic, indeed magical, connotations. It seemed to me, even at that early age, that in these sagas-in-miniature, Hardy had distilled the very essence of the poetic imagination itself.

The genesis of the poetry  published in The Lonely Crowd and, periodically, elsewhere over the years, can be located a decade-and-a-half or so after my initial acquaintance with Hardy, and my subsequent early attempts to be a poet, the bulk of which were essentially self-indulgent juvenilia, and which I eventually destroyed in a state of depressed disillusion vowing never to attempt any form of versifying again.

When I actually resumed writing poems in a serious way, I found that the more denotative and explanatory they were, the less satisfying, either to me personally, or as creative artefacts in their own right. I think that, as a result, I have ever since tended to the allusive and connotative, rather than the specific and stated.

The resumption itself occurred a few years following the aforementioned destructive but cathartic rite-of-passage. I had moved out of the urban environment of London and the Medway Towns, where I had spent all my life, and found myself in the rural expanses of Herefordshire, and, in the late seventies and early eighties, out of work and no longer the youthful optimist, training to be a psychiatric nurse in one of those rambling, mysterious institutions typical of the psychiatric provision at that time, Most of the denizens had been there for a considerable period, most of their lives in many cases, and deemed to be irretrievably disordered or psychotic.

While serving specifically on the long-stay wards, I had more than ample time to observe and discuss the situations and states-of-mind of the inmates, and came to the conclusion that the peculiar and particular mental universes they inhabited, alongside the conversations with themselves, each other, and the invisible entities with whom they conducted their discourses, were, as it happened, entire in themselves, and constituted a much more relevant ‘reality’ as far as they were concerned than the probably limited, deceptive, and often in itself deluded, material existence lived by the rest of us.

It was then that I set about trying to capture, in terms of narrative poetry, the strange stories that represented their experiences, both conscious and unconscious, and the idiosyncrasies of their modes of expression and communication. I had no intention in doing so to convey any message, commentary or polemic, either politically, philosophically or therapeutically: merely to bear witness to the phenomena I encountered while I had the privilege (though not always the pleasure) of spending time in their company and listening to what they had to relate. Admittedly, my antipathy towards both medical and behavioural explanations of madness did come through at times, (confirmed and reinforced when I personally underwent a dramatic crack-up in 1988), but this was inevitable, given my strength of feeling, then as now, regarding these matters.

When I left the field of nursing in 1983 and moved to Wales, I also moved on in terms of subject matter.

Chris Hall reading at A Lonely Crowd in Swansea, November 2017.

What I did continue with was to use the generic title under which I had loosely grouped the series tales sad, savidj and obscure to take in some of my subsequent poems. I found, in effect, that the epithets aimed initially at conveying the facets of psychiatric patients (‘sad’ being a euphemistic descriptor of the tragedies, mentally, emotionally and socially that had befallen them; ‘savidj’ taking in both their own personal states, and indeed their treatment by others: people at large as well as the professionals who had been entrusted with their care; and ‘obscure’ encompassing the often apparently inappropriate, sometimes impenetrable lexis and syntax used by them on an everyday basis) applied as much to the world beyond the realms of psychiatry as to that within those boundaries. The poem included in the current issue of The Lonely Crowd could be said to come under the ambit of both ‘savidj’ and ‘obscure’, I suspect, and the latter certainly applies to ‘th wayfare of th white hare’ in Issue 7.

I also continued to use the particular linguistic conceits I had developed to help convey with some degree of authenticity the special elements of their dicourses, most noticeably the quasi-phonetic style I use when it comes to words and spellings that I employed then and have used ever since. I do this not out of any linguistic sophistication, but to encourage the reader to ‘voice’ the content in their head, in much the same way individuals who find themselves hallucinating might hear disembodied voices. I have found this to be an effective technique long since leaving that actual environment, so have continued the practice, refining it in the process.

Something that has aided me considerably in this pursuit is my lifelong absorption in music of all kinds, but in particular that frequently (though erroneously) categorised as ‘classical’ (a term that applies to a limited period of European cultural history – the late 18th and early 19th century – not the generic gamut the term has come to mean) and jazz. The latter in particular has encouraged a fascination with how sounds are produced for the purposes of performance and expression, and also made me unfussy and improvisatory, rather than attempting to apply any uniform consistency in the application of the style I utilise. It has been suggested by a number of readers, and those who have heard me read, that my poetry has a distinctly musical quality, an observation I am more than happy to accept. I play no instrument, except in a rudimentary way, so this could well arise from some compensatory desire creatively.

John Lavin, when inviting me to submit this article, suggested that I might consider the associations and parallels between my poetry and my visual art (I am a practicing artist with a studio attached to the Apple Store Gallery in Hereford, where I show on a regular basis, and have been involved in a number of exhibitions, including one-person shows at St. Davids Cathedral and the Barker Gallery, Pontypool) and I am, as promised in my opening remarks, very willing to comply.

How the poems appear visually is very important to me. The ‘open-field’ format of many poems derives specifically from this factor, and appeared very early on in the series spontaneously and unbidden, and are not consciously derived from any foregoing literary influences. I use it for no other reason than that is how I think the words should look on the page intuitively, and the highly imagistic nature of the narratives, more evocative than explanatory, (and definitely not symbolic in any way) derive from my attraction to the atmospheric, the elusive,and the illusory. Though my paintings tend to Expressionism (which my poetry doesn’t – though the early, juvenile stuff from my over-heated youth most certainly did), the collages and photomontages that I regularly produce without doubt possess the slightly opaque narrative content and connotative and indefinite qualities of the poems, a case in point being the example I have supplied to complement this commentary, which is actually titled with a phrase from the Lyonesse poem by Hardy I mention at the beginning.

I am aware that I have tended to emphasise the early poems in this series (examples of these are ‘doggon skitsee’ ‘Jonni-B’ and‘Morf’ all of which appear in ‘Balladz f Bedlam’ published in 2002 by the Irish small press Stonebridge – currently out of print), which lasted only a few years, and have said little about the majority of the poems written later on. I suppose I feel it is particularly important to revisit this short era, it being their well-spring.

I have also avoided discussing the actual poem included both in this issue or the earlier one. That is quite purposeful: read the poems themselves should you wish to fathom their meanings. As I said at the outset, I avoid, on the whole, commenting in detail on my work, either literary or visual. Having also no particular interest in seeking public acclaim, and being far too long in the tooth to nurture any careerist or prize-winning ambitions, I rarely, in fact, offer to do so, nor do people expect it of me any longer. I am happy that many of the poems have found their way occasionally into print, but that is not my motive for producing them. I make art, in both fields of endeavour, because I want to, and it is, quite simply, what I do.

However, I am exceptionally grateful for the Editor’s invitation to write these reflections, as it has made me take stock of what I have created over the decades for, as far as memory serves, the very first time. In addition, doing so has caused me to consider collecting them together at long last, having up to now resisted advice to this end. How that will pan out is unclear at present. The poems in question are very varied in subject matter and length (increasingly they comprise only a few lines, rather than the two or three pages of most of their predecessors, some of the former presently appearing in the Hay-on-Wye literary magazine Quirk), but time (what’s left of it), and fortune, will tell. We shall see.

Born in 1945, and growing up in Chatham, north Kent, Chris Hall has lived in South Wales for over thirty years. His most recent publications include his collection of ‘weird tales’ Balladz f Bedlam (Stonebridge 2002) and a reissue of his long poem Bneath Cragshhaddo based on his experiences while living in Prague soon after the ‘Velvet Revolution’, which first appeared in 2000 (WYSIWYG 2000) but has now undergone a substantial revision (Woodenhead 2015). His work has also appeared in Scintilla and Tears in the Fence, and he is regular contributor to the Hay-on-Wye magazine Quirk. A poem of his was also included in Richard Parker’s anthology on the subject of cricket, Leg Avant published by Crater (2016), and his first contributions to The Lonely Crowd appeared in Issue 7.

© Chris Hall, 2018. Photomontage: ‘what would bechance’ from five metaphysical seascapes © Chris Hall, 2010. Author photo © Jo Mazelis, 2018.