On the Road. After All

On the Road. After All

Have you ever wondered why no long distance hauliers are renowned epic poets? As someone who has spent a lot of time in the saddle I’ve puzzled over it for years. You would be wrong to leap to bourgeois conclusions of class and erudition, that is lazy thinking.

If you have never driven long distance, and I specifically mean as the driver rather than a passenger, you may wonder at my premise. But those who have sunk over hours into the drivers seat, feet nursing the pedals, hands caressing the wheel will know. With part of the brain occupied and preoccupied with speed and traffic, distances and lanes, hazard perception and directions the rest of it is freed. The higher mind is alone at last, its noisey sibling distracted and silenced, the demands of doing and achievement delegated.

The road has rhythms, be it at an over the limit blatt or a congested crawl, although in truth it is empty miles and darkness that are the most conducive environment. The rhythms give a pace and order to thoughts, but even at constant velocity there are variations and dissonances. You pass, or are passed, there are imperfections in the tarmac, changing lanes, on ramps, off ramps, lights all weave in and out of the beating heart of the engine. And that too has its complexity, whether a four, six, eight or more part percussion of pistons, conducted by the throttle and played by great lung fulls of air to the intake manifold.

It is in the regular irregularity, the tapestry of complexity, that epic poetry lives. My faithful motor and I have shared almost a hundred thousand miles, over the years and with other partners you could double that. In those vacant hours I swear I have bettered Queen Mab and Coleridge, shaded Shelley and The Mariner. But it was a fleeting brilliance. It faded as the engine ticked and cooled and by the time pen and paper were assembled to bear witness to genius it had fled leaving only the glass slipper of mocking remembrance.

Of course, that is not all of it, that is not it at all. Today I am hands free, voice recognised, recorded. So why haven’t the tattoed hoards erupted into todays whateverthefuckosphere howling and yawping, claiming their place beside Whitman, bouncing Ginsberg off the bonnet?

Surely there is more to be had from trucking poetry than CW McCall?

The road lends itself to introspection, which is rarely a happy indulgence. There is time to rake the coals of fires long extinguished, or pursue flights of fancy like lost inland gulls. Gloomy thoughts and dark roads are a poisonous blend, Sobranie Blacks, seductively sickly sweet and yet filling the body with toxins. All the better. Happy poems are for hacks and Hallmark.

The blurring barriers become extremely dense, urging you to drift inwards with a new and more potent gravity. The shadows under the roadside verdancy promise eternal youth, androgyne elves and faerie queens. Dwell too long and the camber may sway you left or right and off the narrow path of safety. Survive the temptation and the passing juggernauts seek to suck you beneath their wheels.

Permit me a brief change of tack, I’m driving and my mental sat nav abhors straight lines. It is ironic that it is now, in the depths of night and on the dark of the road that I am making the choice to live. And appropriate perhaps that earlier this evening I have met briefly with the friend that introduced me to Dar Williams, and After All is playing on the stereo.

“When I chose to live, there was no joy it’s just a line I crossed, I wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost.”

I’ve had the end planned out in intricate detail for some time. No farewell note, that would be crass, just final touches of care and consideration. Paperwork neatly filed, bank accounts left in an orderly state allowing for the delays of probate, cash in the house for out of pocket expenses. The method would be calm, private, quiet. An undisturbed moment to prevent any hitches. And if I have not wholly made my peace with God, at least we have come to an understanding.

I’ve quashed it all in these melancholy miles. There is no way to tie up all the loose ends. I’ve picked apart my scheme meticulously, forensically, and found the unfixable flaws. What’s worth doing is worth doing well, and if I cannot do it well I will not do it.

That detour brings me back to hauliers and poets. In the end it is just a question of attention and concentration, and perhaps natural selection. It is about what the eye sees, what the heart feels, and what action the mind takes. And it is in this moment of darkness and choosing life that I learn the reason why no long distance hauliers are renowned epic poets.

Have you ever seen an articulated lorry jackknife? From behind and approaching at speed it seems implausible for something of such enormous weight to swing laterally. It draws the mind that is seeking the turning, pivotal moments in a grand rhythm. It calls “here is the foot on which you spin your great reveal”. It is that explosive writing rush when the finale becomes extraordinarily clear. Ink spills from the pen like gasoline from a ruptured tanker, the instant in which you know you have at last bested Queen Mab and Coleridge and the page catches fire.

Life did not choose me after all.

END

My book available here and here among others. Buy it, review it, tell me what you think.

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The Joy of Books – A Guide for the Valentine’s Day Escape Artist

We’ve all been there. Filled with good intentions a week before, our minds bubbling with exotic and innovative ideas to surprise and delight our significant other, we’re mentally prepared for V day. And then Alex calls for a drink and Ben needs a favour and Charlie has ticket to the football and before you know it its Feb 13th and you’re out of time.

Welcome fellow travellers to the wonderful world of the Valentine’s book – cheap, easy to acquire, personalised and sure to make you look thoughtful and romantic, as long as you choose the right one.

If you have a day in hand go for a physical book. You can get expedited delivery from online sellers, and in London at least you can track down a book shop on every other high street. Poems are the obvious choice because fiction spans so many story lines you might trigger an adverse reaction. (Unless you want to signal to someone not your partner that you would rather be with them[Jude], would rather they weren’t with the person they are with [Wuthering Heights], or want to kill your partner [Gone Girl].) Having said that my own book of stories has roses on the cover and would work a treat.

So which poetry book? There are so many to choose from and not all of them fit the Valentine’s bill. Gabriela Mistral’s MadWomen is probably only appropriate if you want to give a break up gift. Brilliant as it is, the message is all wrong. Similarly Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, the undercurrent of tragedy and regret will pull you into an emotional maelstrom.

Neruda is the natural choice. Romantic, sensual, accessible and familiar, but it is a bit uninspired. You won’t get any points for thinking outside the box, or applying some diligent research. The same goes for the old romantic standards. Shakespeare, Barrett Browning, and Pam Ayres, all worthy luminaries of the English speaking world, but so well known, and gracing so many greeting cards you’ll get nothing back for the effort.

That means you need to cast the net a little wider – if you want something with a slightly melancholy romantic turn you should pick up Cavafy’s Collected poems; there is a distinct homoerotic sensibility running through it, which adds a level of poignancy when set in context of the time he was writing.

If you are after something with more violent passions then Vicente Aleixandre’s Destruction or Love is the perfect choice (my Goodreads review of it is here). The hardback edition is a beautiful and weighty tome – you’ll be considerate, worldly, and a harbourer of dark and brooding passions all at once.

Rumi has suffered a little by becoming a campus favourite, and therefore a bit saccharine for more mature sensibilities, but if you can find a copy of The Book of Love, you should ease your way out of any strife.

An acquaintance recently wrote a translation of a Li Bai (aka Li Po) poem, which made me look the Tang dynasty poet up. How did I miss this? (bangs head on wall). Buy two, one for your significant other, and one for yourself in case you ever break up because you won’t want to be without it.

In a similar vein the love poems of Catullus to Lesbia are vaguely remembered by many, but under read by all. In the UK Walt Whitman is not part of the school reading list, and so won’t be familiar, but it is better suited to someone with a bit of grit in their soul.

If you have really run out of time (it is six pm on Feb 14th, and you need to do a real Houdini act) then there are two options. If you have been together long enough to be able to send or gift books to each other’s Kindles or tablets then you could still wriggle out jail. My friend Rik Roots has written the very credible Poems to Quote to Your Lover, and many of the writers above are available in ebook form.

Be wary though. Some of the older books are just scans of an early edition with crappy page breaks and no hyperlinks. I recently picked up a very cheap copy of Rumi for my tablet only to find the text and notes poorly laid out.

If you don’t have the option of sending something over the ether then get a really nice card and crib in a poem. Choose someone relatively unknown and if you are too cheap to buy a copy use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to lift a poem, and scribe it into the card. The onus is now really on you to pick something personal. Alice Meynell’s Renouncement is intense and if your significant other is not a regular poetry reader you might get away with it. There are some lines buried in Shelley’s Epipsychidion which only avid fans will remember, so you could easily take a couplet or two (although have a care, from memory Charlotte Bronte quotes the “seraph of heaven” line in Vilette). Nicholl’s Sonnets to Aurelia are also hard to get hold of, and although many of them are scathing and cold (again good for a break up message), you can definitely pick up a couple of romantic lines e.g.:

In my ruins hour remembrance brings

Faith to my doubt to my intention grace

Reminding me how feebly fall such stings

On one whose eyes dared once your eyes to face

And read in them what no ill can remove

The Love that to the Love said “I Love”

(I did that from memory – self high five)

As a writer I urge you to credit what you crib! Apart from the good practice, in a Google dominated world you may get found out as a Knock Off Nigel and things will go downhill from there.

The Look Inside technique will work on the list above, although you might only get the first poem in each book. If you are in for something steamy then try Eiff’s 31 Tanka, it charts an entire relationship from start to end so there’ll be something for you in there, but definitely NSFW.

Remember the mantra – when all else fails a book will bail you out.

Good Luck and Happy Valentine’s Day

END

My book available here and here among others. Buy it, review it, tell me what you think