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John Welch


Poem: as if you need this mirror to make your silence in – it was as if out of absence he had made a kind of home, and the reader, moving in behind him, hovers there like an afterthought.

You start to imagine one perfect reader. The reader – the one who has mastered the art of silent applause? But are there any readers? Getting into conversation with a well-published poet at some event or other, and he suddenly gets excited and says ‘O a reader, a real reader,’ glad to have actually met one, one who has condensed from ‘out there’. But what he didn’t realise at first was that I was one too, and there followed a slightly edgy exchange of books and postcards. What he also did was give me two novels he had written and which no one appeared to have taken much notice of.

The thing is, can the poem be a quest for personal authenticity? This ‘self’ – as if I were reading a not very adequate translation and seeing round the words I can just make out the original, where it busies itself with cooking, arranging papers, flowers – as I watch one opens like the remains of an eye.

‘Therapy’ is just such a quest. You look for the place where you will be spoken, not spoken for. You are struggling to get there. And confessional poetry seems above all to be aiming at authenticity – the two words / concepts might seem interchangeable. Reading a biography of Anne Sexton, what was the 'persona' that Sexton created? There was the way she went totally to pieces before a reading, but then as she stood up in front of the crowd under the lights, it all came together. Only to go to pieces again immediately afterwards. She came together in the gaze of her audience 'out there', but only then and the persona she created in the poem enabled her to carry on a bit longer each time. There was Berryman's wife's comment on his writing in the light of his eventual suicide; poetry, she said, didn't lead to his death. On the contrary it kept him going for longer than he otherwise would have.

A fantasy of the perfect language, language in which, at last, ‘I’ can be spoken. When someone’s really good you want to be close to it, close to the performance of it, to be there where it first happened. That is something, that miraculous bodying forth. So what we are looking for is the woman or man of perfect utterance? Wanting to know the poet, wanting to be part of her or his world, is wanting to be as near as possible to that utterance. But it so easily goes dead. The line goes dead and it all gets smoothed down with words. The odd thing was, nobody actually noticed it had happened.

‘Thought is in the mouth’ wrote Tristan Tzara. There’s Leonardo’s dream, one he dreamt when an infant and recorded in his notebooks and which is recounted by Freud in his ‘psychobiography’ of the artist. A bird – a kite – flies in through the window, into the bedroom where he Leonardo sleeping, and it thrusts its tail into his mouth. Otherness of ‘I’, sky bursting in on him through the medium of this bird. Is this consciousness’, as if it were something out there? Flight bursts into a room and is trapped here. Leonardo’s dream – you could interepret it as something exciting; mouth-flights, flights of words.

As if I only went to sleep in front of the sky – it was lifting up my head for an answer that began this damage, consciousness of self that opened this rift, becoming a scar that never quite heals. Writing, like a wound listening to itself. And here I am in a sort of hesitant stillness where daybreak left me making signs.

Parents who released me into becoming and who are now air, ‘together who’d soiled the monument’, this was a line that I couldn’t let go of. A monuments, its dates, going out to inspect it briefly, the self like a shadow falling across it. Back then, at home, what I used to like was the winter ruination of gardens, a blurred gaze of statuary, and I’d go back to my room of words, back through the rinsings of light. It was as if I thought the words could do it all by themselves. Sitting there sending words backwards and forwards across the page, convinced they must be hiding something. There’s a self pencilled in as if it were someone I almost knew, and consciousness the language accident – here are the words that almost found me and that life a self to music edged with voice, until one day it will fall silent, silent as a stone head on a building.

This was what there was to perform. Language, us and what we were to be performed by. Because we are trapped in a kind of biological accident, consciousness arising purely as an epiphenomenon, a side-effect. Waking into consciousness, like coming round after a road accident – as in the Jacques Tati film ‘Traffic’, after a huge motorway pile-up... They all get out of their cars – miraculously no one has been hurt – and spend ages carefully feeling themselves all over, all round the margins of themselves. Am I here? Am I still here? Gazing around wonderingly.

The mother makes it possible for the child to create the breast; the text makes it possible for the reader to make meaning. The child not sure whether s/he is making or destroying – ‘meaning’ is being poised, maintaining a balance between the two, this ‘poise’ becoming a sort of slow dance. Waking at night I am huge, making words. Now close your eyes, and write down what you remember. Your sense of being is being-in-language but all the while you are struggling to get out, and the more you struggle the more you are sucked into it, as if you are digging your own grave. Language – an undoing as well as a doing. Unite / untie. Describing as a kind of devouring. And always something that empties itself inwards.

Mirror-image, this something that ‘others’ itself; smiling mask that fascinates. Being in love not with myself-in-the-mirror – but with the mirror itself. A couple of nights ago a dream, where I was carrying the mirror smashed into fragments and wrapped in newspaper.

Art – a vocation, this ‘calling’. But who is calling, and who is it being called? Do you call it or does it call you? ‘Against grandiosity’ – can I ever separate the writing from a sense of the grandiose. Such a puffed-up singer. There’s doing it and there’s being one. All this leaning into the page and as if hurrying to somewhere, ‘I’ , the pen, at an angle to the page and to what goes on. But still happiest doing this?

John Clare’s concept of ‘self-identity’ – and, conversely ‘sad non-identity’. His attempt to hang on to his sense of identity, and the loss of it the way poetry appears to have helped sustain it. Clare’s adopting of different ‘identities’ – Byron, a champion boxer etc – only a short distance from ‘identifying with’ those characters. ‘I shrank from myself with extacy (sic) and have never been myself since’ he wrote. Bate, in his biography of the poet, calls poetry ‘a cause of alienation . . . and yet his greatest solace.’ In a letter Clare describes himself as ‘quite lost in reveries and false hums.’

‘Clare had a “song in the night”, he knew his affliction and felt it.’ So wrote Jerome, a steward at the asylum where Clare spent his final years.

So it goes on.

Copyright © John Welch, 2008