Tonight I am excited and honoured to share some thoughts and words from the poet John Foggin, who I regard as of Britain’s finest poets of landscape, a poet whose muscular and musical work has delighted, transported and educated and entranced me since I first his poem ‘Achnacloich’ in The North some years ago and thought ‘Who is this guy?’
It is a fantastic poem, the best I’d read for some time, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen anything else by this writer and why this poem wasn’t in that year’s Forward collection. A few years later and John’s work is unsurprisingly featured in the Forward Book of Poetry.
John has kindly agreed to showcase a few poems here, and in response to my request for him to talk about his writing we have the added bonus of his wonderful ‘stocktake’ .
I am deeply honoured that he has chosen to let me publish his previously unpublished poem ‘A weak force’. I have just finished laying out the poems and paragraphs for this post, and my face is still wet with tears, my breath still taken away. This devastating and beautiful poem shows how John’s work has evolved and changed, enabling him to go deeper and further than most writers ever could.
I first met John (or rather observed his immaculately waist-coated bright-eyed and tanned personage) at a Poetry Business writing day in Sheffield five or six years ago. During a read around of work written that morning he fluidly piled words upon words to describe the interior of a shed or garage or attic. I hope John will forgive me for not remembering the exact location he described, nor the name of the poem in question. I do know that I didn’t want the poem to end. It was evident that John knew his materials (both the language he wanted to use and the physical objects such as rope and tacks and tools) so well, and handled them with such precision that the list of objects sang and gathered in layers to build a sense of place, and, more miraculously, a sense of the person who had collected them. This description doesn’t really do justice to John’s skill, so I hope you will gain some idea of how his poems build from the poems that follow.
On another occasion I was to benefit from his support and encouragement as he commented, after I’d read my own draft, that we were ‘in Heaney territory here’. This was the first time I’d ever had a poem compared to another poet’s work, and as far as I was concerned, Heaney was a pretty good place to start. John is now well known for his ‘cobweb’ (he dislikes, as we all do I suspect, the word ‘blog’) a space he utilises to generously air his thoughts and to champion poets whose work he feels we should know about.
John has been published in lots of magazines, and has an impressive record of winning competitions including the Lumen Camden competition which lead to the publication of his wonderful Ward Wood pamphlet Larach,
a soulful, cerebral collection which you can purchase here.
Ladies and gentlemen, John Foggin.
About 12 years ago I finished an MA course in Creative Writing that I was ill-advised to have started. I don’t know what my motive was, but my heart wasn’t in it. I duly got my MA, but the writing didn’t start in any meaningful way until I started going to the Poetry Business Writing Days on a regular basis a couple of years later. Even then, between 2007 and 20012 I averaged about twelve new poems a year.
Something strange (or, rather, wonderful) happened in 2013; it was like a dam bursting. I’ve written ceaselessly since. 272 new poems. I cannot account for it, but I’m happy to count my blessings. And I can now look back and see a curious process and progress.
In one of the essays I wrote for my MA I see that even then I had an idea about where I wanted to be. I wrote that my imagination was:
‘visual ,excited by landscape, particularly the landscape of hills, fells, sky, sea and weather’. but that I wanted to be more: concerned with explorations of people in landscape, and the meaning of their histories.’
Basically, all my poems were like the photograph of the shore at Achnacloich. Empty of people. Which leads me to a shift, of sorts. Back then, even before I started on an MA, I went up to Skye for a week on my own TO WRITE. I would write about Clearance sites. I would read John Prebble. I would take poets with me. I would be serious about it.
Not much came of it except this one poem that eventually was accepted by ‘The North’. I didn’t know that was a big deal. I know better now. The backstory is that I was getting myself lost as usual up on the moor, following, and losing, deer tracks, and looking out towards Rhum, and back to the Cuillin, and realising that I couldn’t see any of it straight. It was all coming through the lens of Ted Hughes and his stags, and his stones and his horizons. And it was that frustration that I wrote about. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but when I came home to radio and newspapers, I discovered that had been the day that Ted Hughes had died, and I thought that made the poem worth keeping. Here it is.
Achnacloich: October 1998
As the heron creaked clear
of the wet alders by the brown burn,
taking a line from the curve of the fell
where the eagle had mantled
and flown lazy and sure to the far edge of things,
you were watching, old hawk, among the crofts,
the sheep staring mad-eyed
at your insurance man’s suit
shiny at cuff and collar, creased at knee,at elbow.
You watched and talked all that wet day,
your gritstone vowels, your cadences
open as the sky; falling for ever.
You were there on the shoreline,
rooting through the blueprint bones
of sheep, those scattered vertebrae,
this relic jawbone clamped on silence
among the stones, the hiddle of baling wire,
mired iron sheeting, rust.
Across the green and sopping parks
sheep huddled in the lithe of the long wall,
and beyond, on the bareblown hill
the deer were waiting for you and me;
alert and wary, then, pouring easy as light
up the tumbled slopes and out of sight,
in those gulleys gouged in the cold hills.
Heaven poured down on Rhum,
fans and blades of honey, silver-gilt.
As we walked and watched that day
in Achnacloich; old hawk, you saw
the pressed dry grass where the deer lie,
a single slot in a cup of peat;
the buttresses of turf, of heather, tangled whin,
and, always the horizons calling
until, far below and far away,
the wood was a struggle
a scattering foil of birch and bloodbead ash.
There we stood in the high place
where rock was kneeling, clean and dry and bright
and all the earth was a stage
for the performance of heaven.
The tumbling outcrops fell away;
away, away beyond the foundering islands,
beyond the damascened sea.
The stones, the light, the rain,
all fixed in the reflex of your hawk’s eye.
Wherever I walked in Achnacloich,
The Field of Stones, that day your words,
joined with earth and engraved in rock
were under my feet. That day.
(Ted Hughes d. October 28 1998)
I realise now it more than just a bit of landscape painting, and that I was enjoying collaging lines of Hughes’ poems into my own, and I was actually writing about something personal. But I didn’t stay with it.
It was another 5 years before I started again, and I made a big effort to populate my poetry. I took my cue from The world’s wife and worked away at ventriloqual monologues spoken by fallen angels. I like some of them, but no-one else seems to. I wrote about John Waterhouse, the painter, and his wife, and his favourite model. More dramatic monologues that didn’t go anywhere very much. And then a long hiatus, though I started going regularly to The Poetry Business Writing Days, and they slowly worked their magic. Tentatively, I started to write about real people, but very self-consciously and awkwardly until 2013 when I was on a writing residential and I wrote this poem that changed everything.
According to the specialists you died six months ago
and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife
as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird
up on your kitchen top beside the angel
that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.
Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets
and pictures of Bob Dylan, and you show me
that programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,
not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.
You make me laugh each time you tell the phone
it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother
who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.
Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,
then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks
up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles
tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares
from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft
goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off
away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,
and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.
This poem, about someone I was very fond of, only happened because of the pressure of a fast writing task that ambushed me into knowing an emotion I didn’t know I felt. Thank you for that ‘write from a postcard’ task, Jane Draycott. I plucked up the courage to give a copy to Julie’s brother at her funeral. He liked it. He shared it with people, and I sent it off for the Plough Poetry Competition, where Andrew motion liked it and gave it the first prize. That’s what changed everything. It gave me permission to think I could write, along with the encouragement of Kim Moore (who put one of my poems on her Sunday Poem blog), and Gaia Holmes, who gave me a guest slot at the Puzzle Hall Poets. That was it. The dam broke.
Years of reading and teaching, and having a family and a history were stacked up, waiting to be dealt with and voiced. It took 70 years, but I finally got going. More fallen angels, poems for my parents and for my grandparents, and my children, and long-ago girlfriends, and finally, folktale and myth that became imaginatively real and relevant for the first time in my life. Daedalus let me write about the death of my son. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Garfield and Blishen’s The god beneath the sea reminded me why I loved Prometheus and Hephaestus, and why I loathed most of the Greek Pantheon. Norman MacCaig taught me it was possible to write about gods and heroes with the ease of familiarity. Which is what lies behind this poem that I chose to put into my chapbook Larach (along with John Keats’ urn and Orpheus and the rest). It’s nice to feel comfortable enough to be angry in a poem.
Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,
a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,
or a shower of gold, or a flurry of wings
The whole pale mortal world
just asking for it.
A bit of blood and bruising.
No harm done.
No wonder Cronos had no stomach
for Olympus and its thuggish brood.
Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,
stiffens nets; the blue-white shine of bone;
the gristly wet noise of a boy
spitted on a hunting spear;
Years and reverence
bleached Greek myths white and silent,
censored severed hands and torn-out tongue;
the loud incontinent reek of death.
As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,
the silvery liquid song of nightingales
would atone, somehow.
Birds and flowers, and cold bright stars –
archers,hunters, bear and plough.
Surely simpler, and more godlike,
to prick holes in the fabric of the night,
let bits of heaven shine through.
I suspect all my pent-up frustrations about arrogant Old Etonians and their sense of entitlement, and their palpable contempt for the rest of us has fed into this. Whether it’s healthy or not, I don’t know. But I enjoyed writing it. I like doing it at open mic. events, too.
The last year has brought new breakthroughs that I’ve recognised in the moments where they happened. I’ve reached a point where I can write with what feels like real emotional/imaginative truth about the things that matter to me more than anything. It’s a long business, learning not to shy away from hard truths. Kim Moore has taught me that in her poems that deal with domestic violence in her lovely collection, The art of falling. And then, in March this year, in a residential she ran, she somehow ambushed me into writing a poem about my son’s suicide, direct, unmediated through games with myth and personae. It’s the poem I’ve waited all my life to write.
A weak force
there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;
the lives never lived by your children;
the one who simply stopped
in the time it takes
to fall to the ground
from the top of a tower block.
No time at all.
They say gravity is a weak force.
I say the moon will draw a trillion tons
of salt sea from its shore.
I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt
puddle out of shape.
I say gravity can draw a boy
through a window
and into the air.
There is loss no one can imagine
in the no time between
falling and not falling
you learned the art of not falling
beneath you burned
the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,
Briggate, Vicar Lane,
lights shone in the glass arcades,
on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes,
on the motorway tail lights trailed ribbons of red,
and you were far beyond falling.
Because you shut your eyes
because you always shut your eyes
you closed them tight as cockleshells
because when you did that the world
would go away the world
would not see you.
I remember how you ran like a dream.
I remember how you laughed when I swore
I would catch you.
Then you flared you went out
you flared like a moth and you blew
away over the lights over the canal
the river the sour moors the cottongrass
the mills of the plain
and over the sea and over the sea
and the bright west
and sank like the sun.
Thanks for inviting me, Roy Marshall. It’s been good to take stock.