A F Harrold

When Sarah invited me to write something for this blog I asked her what sort of thing she had in mind, and she suggested (as cheesy as it sounds, she added) maybe something about ‘what inspires you’? So here goes on that. The last two years have been taken up, to a greater or lesser extent, with my mother’s illness, her death and then the aftermath (read: paperwork) that follows. I spent a lot of time visiting and staying with her while she was at home, and then living in her cottage when she moved into hospital and then a hospice in order to be able to make daily visits. During her illness, when the story was still an adventure with treatments and tests and possibilities, I recorded incidents and snatches in poems as we all do with interesting moments anyway. Not as catharsis (I had friends to bore with tales of practical and emotional hurdles, and they were very generous), but specifically in a way that I thought might be of interest to a reader. We all know the difference, even if it’s hard to pin down or specify, between keeping a diary and writing for a public, between selfish writing and selfless writing. It’s primarily that the one is deathly dull (like listening to someone else’s dreams), while the other manages to transcend the personal into something at once unique and specific and yet touching on universal matters. Think of a book like Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, for example. So these poems occupied the second half of 2009, almost to the exclusion of other topics, and on the whole they failed in reaching that interest threshold: the point where I think, ‘If someone else had written this would it move me/interest me?’ They are filed away in the bottom drawer either for cannibalisation later on, when they’ve simmered long enough, or for firelighting. Come the beginning of 2010 and the story had entirely lost its adventure and had become a waiting game that dragged on too long, and with that poetry had reduced to a trickle – there was little left to say that I hadn’t already attempted exploring. Nothing new was happening, bar boredom and sick bowls. When she died in May of that year it was a personal weight lifted, obviously, but as far as poetry went (which, to be honest, wasn’t the immediate top of my agenda) nothing shifted, I remained blocked. This wasn’t a problem, per se, wasn’t troubling: I remembered a similar blockage of at least six months or so after my father’s death in 2002 and besides, I was still gigging, still writing comic bits and performance things and occasional verse and theatre reviews, so I kept busy, but poetry was stalled. In August I began an epistolic poem, addressed to my mother, in a rather rebarbative tone. It was not angry as such, but explored the more unpleasant, ungentlemanly, feelings I’d had the previous autumn and winter as I’d (as it seemed) wasted my time visiting her in the hospice. I was having to live away from home and turn down work, in order to be near her because it had been made clear she really didn’t have very long to live at all. I visited every day aware it might be the last, and as each day went by without her dying I felt more bored and more resentful. These are natural responses, but loathsome to contemplate, and I needed to tell her about them, needed to be honest with her, hence beginning this poem. (It’s the line in Auden’s The Cave Of Making, addressed to Louis MacNeice, ‘I wish you hadn’t / caught that cold, but the dead we miss are easier / to talk to […]’ that always rings in my ears.) The poem stalled though, and as much as I battered and bargained with it, whittling and adding a line from time to time, it seemed to be going nowhere. I was writing it in an ornate form of my own invention, because I’m of the general opinion the more dangerous the emotion, the tighter the jacket, in order to keep something in check, and working my way through the scheme required hard work at all dictionaries, unpicking verses and reweaving the rhymes. It was inch by inch work, and the inches weren’t advancing for a long time. I knew, however, that this was the blockage that needed clearing before normal service could be resumed. Though the poem was begun in facing these harsh emotions still fresh and half-unacknowledged, it was finished in the early weeks of this new year in quite another frame of mind. By then the fires had died down, a happiness had arrived, life had settled, but although I no longer felt any of that hate or resentment, only the deep sadness that goes on continually, I could recall them, I knew them, and still felt that recording them (owning up to them) and sending them off and out (pointlessly) into the aether, as it were, was a necessary duty. (Auden again: ‘[…] when playing cards or drinking / or pulling faces are out of the question, what else is there / to do but talk to the voices / of conscience they have become? […]’) With that duty over, and the poem complete to my meagre satisfaction (whether it turns out to be a public poem, I don’t know yet, I’ll leave it a while and sound it out with some professionals before answering that question), other poems have now begun to come, still about her (it is easy to believe sometimes that there is only one woman any Englishman loves truly), but also on unrelated topics too. And writing freely again, having that feeling that it is possible to finish a poem, is both a relief and a sadness – it’s as if that period of my life has had a full stop set down, though that can hardly be true. As to the original question, about inspiration, there are of course two simple answers: firstly, if you ask a question like that, then you don’t understand what inspiration is; and secondly, if I knew where it came from, I’d be there now, instead of here writing this.

A.F. Harrold, January 20th 2011