In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle introduces his own venture into the world of poetry
At the beginning of 2020 I had little faith in this Government, but it turns out I was stupidly optimistic. Johnson (‘agent of chaos’, as I like to call him, after the Norman Spinrad novel of 1967 which features a protagonist called Boris Johnson) and his Cabinet have attracted widespread opprobrium in the wake of the double-whammy of a looming no-deal Brexit and the chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But this isn’t a political blog. As it’s the last Friday before Christmas, I thought I’d briefly discuss, instead of someone else’s work of literature, one of my own efforts: a rare venture into the creative field. Next Friday, I’ll be back to blogging about other, far better writers and poets. This week, though, I want to talk about my experience writing The Tesserae.
I began work on a long poem two years ago, after I finished writing a book-length study of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, titled The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem (Bloomsbury). That book unearthed the little-known obsession that modernists had with ‘long poems’ in the years immediately succeeding the end of the First World War.
By ‘long poem’ here I don’t mean some vague catch-all term that can be applied equally to Eliot’s 434-line poem The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s 900-page epic The Cantos. I mean a very specific subgenre of poem: fragmentary, experimental, focused on the modern city, dealing with the shift in society that had been brought about by the Great War among other things, and usually a few hundred lines long.
My discovery that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was not an isolated work of literature but rather part of this fascinating but short-lived subgenre came about when I read Hope Mirrlees’ Paris: A Poem, which I’ve previously blogged about here. Mirrlees’ poem was just 11 lines longer than Eliot’s, carried notes at the end supplied by the poet herself, focused on a modern post-war capital city, was highly allusive, obscure, challenging, and even disorienting.
Both poems were also published in Britain by the Hogarth Press, Virginia Woolf’s own publishing press. But Mirrlees’ poem, not Eliot’s, was published first: Paris appeared in 1920 – two years before The Waste Land.
After Eliot’s poem was published and became world-famous, a number of other poets wrote their own modernist long poems: Richard Aldington’s A Fool i’ the Forest and Nancy Cunard’s Parallax (which I’ve discussed here) both responded to, and critiqued, the post-war vision of The Waste Land. And then, in around 1925, the modernist long poem disappeared from view, although its legacy can be seen in works of modernist poetry that appeared much later in the century, such as Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (from 1966) and Roy Fisher’s A Furnace (1986).
I follow Sir Jonathan Bate in thinking that a literary critic should at least have a go at writing the thing they spend all their time writing and talking about, so they can better understand something of the business of literary creation. And although I used to write poetry, I hadn’t seriously returned to it for a number of years until two years ago, when I began jotting down notes and lines, random images and ideas, towards a sort of belated free-verse modernist long poem that was, I suppose, an attempt to summon and describe Britain in the age of Brexit.
I stalled. What I’d written was several pages of nonsense, so I promptly set it aside. Then, in spring 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic swept the world, I felt the desire to try to capture something of the confusion and fear, the rapid change to everyday life, which characterised the initial national response to the virus.
Rather than adopting free verse throughout, I wrote in a combination of more traditional forms (sestinas, villanelles) and looser, experimental lines which, at times (I only realised afterwards) were inspired in part by the rhythms of rap and hip-hop, as well as owing something to previous modernist long poems (and epics) like The Waste Land, Mirrlees’ Paris, and David Jones’s superlative The Anathemata (which was a major influence on the second section of my own poem).
The resultant poem was written in two ‘spells’: the spring, when coronavirus first hit, and the autumn, when it returned in the ‘second wave’. The mood and tone of the poem altered considerably as the mood of the nation shifted between March and November (when I wrote much of the poem’s fourth and final section, ‘The Dogs Say Goodnight’).
This long poem was my attempt, I suppose, to put into practice all I had learned about how modernist poets approached the idea of the long poem roughly a century ago – and to explore whether it was possible to write a similar poem, albeit updated to reflect contemporary trends and attitudes, in response to our current crisis (or crises: the imminent no-deal Brexit combining with coronavirus to create a landscape riven by division and fear).
The poem is, like The Waste Land, a medley of different voices, part cry of despair, part lament for something that has gone for good. It is also, I suppose, an attempt to find – or even to create – a modern myth, or body of myths, which can reflect the sickness which has afflicted Britain during what has been, to borrow from and adapt a phrase from Auden, a low, dishonest year.
I named the finished poem The Tesserae, since it needed a suitably modernist-sounding title, and this seemed to fit the bill. Whether I have been successful in my aim to write a modern-day, very belated modernist long poem for the contemporary age I couldn’t say, but I felt that my attempt was worth publishing anyway, since I told myself I would do so anyway, regardless of whether it was a resounding success or a miserable failure (which would, I suppose, be true to the poem’s twin subjects).
But why The Tesserae? The word ‘tessera’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary with, among others, the following meanings:
- Any one of the quadrilateral divisions into which a surface is divided by intersecting lines;
- A small square forming part of a mosaic;
- A small wooden tablet used as a ticket or label; and
- A password or other distinguishing sign.
The word is ultimately from the Attic Greek meaning ‘four’. My use of ‘tesserae’ was originally inspired by the remains of a mosaic found at Bancroft in Milton Keynes, on the site of a Roman villa that had stood there. And Milton Keynes, that much-maligned modern town in roughly the middle of England, and in some ways representing a kind of ‘Middle England’, is the loose setting for the poem. (Fittingly, the first part of the name of Milton Keynes is from ‘Middleton’, meaning, roughly, ‘middle-town’ or ‘middle-settlement’.)
However, the title also, of course, refers to the poem itself: the four parts of the poem are also supposed to form literary ‘tesserae’, fragments or signs of a non-existent longer work.
The first part of The Tesserae is about the various divisions between people, both physical and psychological; the second explores the history of the city (or, to be perhaps more pedantically technical, the large town) of Milton Keynes in central England; the third dwells, among much else, on the suspensions of usual freedoms in Britain and elsewhere; and the fourth is a series of visions or signs about the present as it rapidly turns into the long-term future, part dystopian nightmare, part modern myth.
As a whole, the poem takes its cue not the Graeco-Roman mythologies which so interested the modernists themselves, but from older, Middle-Eastern myths from the Sumerian and Akkadian empires, such as the Descent of Inanna and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which represent the true origins of the epic, rather than Homer.
Here are the opening 39 lines from the first ‘tessera’, ‘Distancing’. It’s a sestina. The Tesserae is available as a paperback, for the price of a pint on a London pub – remember those?
The lines are cut: the winds are praying in the city
this evening as the light is going down.
And all the souls that never travelled home
they now must travel home, but in the mind
of thwarted thoughts they never go the distance
and cannot carry more than half of nothing
at the best of times (which this is not). And nothing,
that elusive ubiquitous force that fills this city,
settles somewhere in the middle distance
where hearts are neither up nor down.
The silence scans the mind
for signs of peace which is its natural home.
But now there is no ever going home,
for home feels less and knows no more than nothing
as if it were the cradle of the mind
and not just some old half-frustrated city.
The world turned upside-down
cannot make time disclose the tricks of distance
if indeed it even is such equidistance
that puts us midway between home and ‘home’.
What is there that can stop us falling down
before the realisation that nothing
within this now divided mass of city
can purge the high-strung treason of the mind?
Nothing, perhaps. But somewhere in the mind
there are two thoughts that cannot keep their distance
connecting the idea of home, this city,
to another, ancient, deep idea of home
that cannot be reduced to less than nothing
although we try so hard to keep it down.
So if this haunted place still looks rundown
that is the fault of matter, but of mind
as well: for going home is really nothing
more than a lie that crosses no more distance
than if you’d stayed at ‘home’ –
and the winds are praying in the city.
It’s all fall down until the total distance
between the mind and mind can find its home
which reaches nothing long before the city.
The Tesserae by Oliver Tearle is available in paperback from Amazon.