Monday 12 February 2018

HistFic poetry, by Antonia Senior

An indulgent post, this month. Forgive me! But it comes from noble motives. I want to tell you about The Poetry School. As its name suggests, The Poetry School is a charity dedicated to teaching, discussing and promoting poetry. Its website is a superb smorgasbord of information, courses and - of course - poetry. It also has a social media platform to allow poets to interact.

What, I can hear you thinking, does this have to do with History?

Poets, as well as historical fiction prose writers, have always engaged with the past imaginatively. The earliest poets in the Western canon, from Homer to Ovid, blended history and mythology. The seam is a rich one, running through the poetic tradition to the best of contemporary voices. I think, for example, of Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife - a collection in which the Poet Laureate imagines the lives of famous men's other halves.

I am currently doing an online course with The Poetry School called The Shadow of Violence. The idea of the course is to read and write poetry that is disquieting, full of tensions, and leaves that shadow of violence on the reader. The course tutor, Mark Pajak (who writes brilliantly unsettling poetry) has taught us to think about approaching violence obliquely.

He says: "A violent poem's success often depends on this feeling of distance. Poems that do not look directly at the blinding light of the violent moment but at the surrounding shadows or through a tinted perspective"

Historical fiction is, inevitably, full of violence. Mark's advice is, I think, as sound for writers of prose as it is for writers of poetry. As a prose writer, I have found trying to think like a poet difficult, but immensely rewarding. 

Here are two of the poems I have written for the course. They are historical in subject - I seem incapable of engaging creatively with the present. 

The first was a response to Mark's call for a poem which builds to an implied moment of violence. The scene is the Appian Way, just before it is lined with the crucified bodies of thousands Spartacus' followers. 

The Appian Way, 71 BC.
By Antonia Senior

They laugh at
him, the others.
His slow care.

First, he smooths,
planes the wood.
Bends his head
to watch sawdust spill.

‘Thousands of feet of road, Lucius
And thousands more.’

He gouges a line,
Deep in the wood’s
muscle. And another.
His angles nicely rounded.

‘Thousands of cords to knot, Lucius
And thousands more.’

He runs his thumb
In the new groove,
Using his skin
To catch splinters.

‘Thousands of nails to strike, Lucius
And thousands more,’

He takes his hammer,
holds his first nail
in pincer fingers.
Smashes hard.

‘Thousands of holes to dig, Lucius.
And thousands more.’

He stands back.
Admiring his marks.
Parched canyons awaiting
trickles of blood.

‘Thousands of rebels to hang, Lucius.
And thousands more.’

It is ready, his monument.
Crossed arms outstretched
to bear the weight of
a breaking man.

This second poem is intended to show the aftermath of violence. The shadow, if you like. This is based on the battle of Edgehill in 1643. An eyewitness recalled seeing a naked man emerging from the battlefield the next morning. He has spent the night lying among the corpses. This was a scene in my first novel, Treason's Daughter.

After the battle.

Moonlight licks his naked skin
Forces him: alive or dead?
A bit of both, he chooses
Alone in his unmade bed.

The air’s an ice-cubed lake
That laps at toes and fingers
Take them – he shouts to an empty sky
And his hollow cry still lingers.

His ears hold all the world’s fury
He can’t hear his own dismal fear
A demon capers, holds him under,
Tells him redemption is near.

Now – he cries to an indifferent angel
Who gathers her wings in disdain.
He drowns in the cold air’s malice,
Sinks further into his pain.

Soft hands caressed this naked skin.
Warm, slipped over his drum-tight chest.
Searched him, stripped him, left him bleeding
And moved on to rifle the rest.

He calls for his scarlet brothers
But all of his brothers are dead.
His mattress a tangle of life-leeched limbs.
He’s alone in an unmade bed.

Forgive the indulgence, and the very mediocre poetry. I'm enjoying the course immensely, and I wanted to share my enthusiasm for it! I'm off now, to write the last assignment - the moment of violence itself. Perhaps I'll see some of you there? 



Karen Maitland said...

Thank you for the post. I think poetry has so much to teach the fiction writer. I am always in awe of poets who can tell a whole story in a few lines whereas it takes me, as a novelist, hundreds of pages. As you say it is excellent advice for writers of both poetry and prose that a violent scene can be far more effective 'if you don't look directly at the blinding light of the violent moment, but at the surrounding shadows.'

Pippa Goodhart said...

Both poems and both moving and beautiful. Thank you.