This has been an extraordinarily fruitful week for immersing myself in writing of my own. Part of the magic was timing, I was longing to get going again, but also this place. I always love coming to Hebden Bridge, but I only left the apartment once this week and then wanted to be back and writing again, so in a sense I could have been anywhere, but a steep sided valley is always good and this little apartment is perfect. The welcome was lovely, including freshly baked lemon cakes, and the place, the ground floor beneath the owners’ home, is beautifully set up and was once the Industrial Co-operative Society’s building so it has good ghosts, even though I don’t believe in ghosts.
For my last day I’ve been working on a couple of poems that connect more personal material with the physical location of Cwmorthin and its history. I’ve got one good draft and one ropy skeleton that needs a lot of work or putting out of its misery– we’ll see. I’ve also got lots of notes from Paul Ricoeur, exploring doubt further. Doubt is clearly an important through line in both the process of writing and the material, I’m discovering. Ricoeur says:
The poetics of narrativity corresponds to the aporetics of temporarily
In other words when we are at a loss in the face of time the human response is to narrativise, to tell stories, to construct poetry.
Ondaatje, whose work I love, says something similar in In the Skin of a Lion, about how art orders ‘the chaotic tumble of events’. Ricoeur also talks about how narrative is restorative – it validates the humanity of those written about, the writer and those reading, he considers. I like that. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time – to the huge events of cosmology, the big and the mo hidden events of history and to our personal journeys. As Ricoeur so brilliantly puts it:
The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative.
A couple of days ago I wrote about the process of beginning to write again after a break. Bobbie Darbyshire commented on the importance of doubt and it made me realise that the epigraph I have for this poetry sequence is also about the importance of doubt:
We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.
Then today I received a blog post from Richard Gwyn (an excellent blog to follow) about the self doubt of William Carlos Williams:
In his autobiography Williams claims that what drove him to write was anger – somewhat like Cervantes – and his anger was clearly kept warm by his self-doubt and insecurity, his dislike or loathing of certain contemporaries (especially Eliot, of whom he claimed, late in life, to be “insanely jealous”) and his fear that he was not considered an ‘important’ poet.
How terrible the tribulations – real or imagined – of the poet, how fragile the music.
I’m not in a state of anger or loathing and have no illusions about important poet-hood, but I can empathise with ‘insanely jealous’ and this post and other offerings on doubt set me thinking about the line between healthy doubt and crippling self-mistrust. The music is fragile and it’s so easy to be overwhelmed. The key, I think, is in that quote from Henry James.
Healthy doubt recognises that we are trying as hard as we can in the dark; that the results will be flawed, but it does not paralyse us, on the contrary it drives us, it is our passion. As Samuel Beckett put it:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Doubt, after all, isn’t the death of faith. So this week I’ve been trying again and it’s been a fantastic week. I have one more day left and I’m looking forward to being home, but a concentrated week has given me lots of research material, a whole batch of short prose poems for the first section and three new sections in first draft. I remain full of doubt, but I think I’m failing better.