Coming Out : The Name and Nature of the Poet

It is a time for the consideration of New Year resolutions; a time to think of tweaking or in some small way to redefine what you are or hope to be in the coming year. At the beginning of 2011 I made a decision which has only found some small voice, but which continues as one of my resolutions for the coming year:  In all my work as a researcher, editor, writer etc., I spend my days working with the creative output of others; I channel my thoughts and ideas through the output of mostly long dead composers and poets. This certainly continues to be the case, but in 2011 I sought to find space for my own creativity, in answer to long held desires to both compose music and write poetry. Why should I live wholly through the work of another when my own work might bring me some (greater?) fulfilment?

In spite of such a resolution, it is not often that I have been able to turn my hand to the such things, with the distraction of our two children, who are now 21 months old, the PhD, just submitted, and much else. March-July 2011 saw my first flurry of serious application to the task of poetry, working up some ideas both old (jotted in a notebook in 2009) and new. Since this first flurry, this last few days have been the first time that I have had the slightest space to begin to think about seriously working up some of the fragments and ideas that I have had in the intervening months. And this is only poetry: the several musical ideas I have, some quite well developed, must remain untouched for the present.

A question that has dogged me since the resolution to allow space for my own original creativity has been one of validity and purpose. It is a question that I suspect has been asked of many an Artist (a title I don’t dare claim for myself): Is my desire to create a matter of ego and self-indulgence? (A question that might be asked also of the impetus to blog, tweet or similar such avenues.) Or is it something greater; something more important and fundamental? I must admit that, after much thought, I don’t think it is a matter of ego. I don’t believe that to be the driving force behind my desire to create. I enjoy and receive a great deal of stimulation and solace from the music and poetry I hear, perform and read. My brain seems at times to stumble upon ideas for things that I somehow need to express in order to exorcise that idea from my mind so that further ideas follow, be they unrelated or growing out of previous ideas. I find the same in my research and commentary on the work of others. Ideas are what seem to drive me. I hope somehow that they might find resonance with others, but if those others be only one other person then it matters not. I must express the truth of what I think, be it of use or not. Perhaps there is some element of ego in this, but one could argue that nothing is devoid of ego.

Having only successfully completed a handful of poems I in no way lay any claim to the title of Poet. I just enjoy writing poetry when I am able. I know little of the art, knowing only what I like, and what I want to say. The nature of poetry is a curious thing. For some poetry is defined by rhyming lines. For me, rhyme and metre are not high in my poetic considerations – although this is not to say that rhyme and half-rhyme are not part of the armoury, and also does not mean that enjambments are arbitrary (they are often very far from being so – the enjambment is one of the most potent poetic ‘devices’). Poetry is about ideas; about the intensity of those ideas and the intensity with which they may be explored. Prose would be too, well, prosaic. Poetry seems to be the only way.

With such musings I here put forth one of my ‘things’, which is dawning upon being seasonally apt. I hope that I might find time to draw a line under several further ideas in the coming year, and maybe also excise some of the music that has been welling up. It is easy to live life through the work of another or in work that benefits another (although financially essential at times). But one must not solely live life through and for these others. We all have the capacity to create and to create something individual and be true to ourselves.

Twelfth Night

Eden lies desolate,
Abandoned and lost;
Unheeded by trains
of men that daily pass.

But one tree remains,
its yet budless boughs
dripping with the unfulfilled
passion of the dying season,
those unpearled gold
green garlands gathering
in twice regal conference,
hastening, foreshadowing
its end; awaiting
the final fall of this
manforsaken plot.

No Eve now comes
to pluck the dwindling
fruits of autumn
that untasted fall
to feed in vain long
fallow ridge and furrow
to which no Adam
now bends his plough.

Wantonly fertile;
impotent and futile.
What hope for this
now exiled embanked
garth in lonely brink,
ripe for reclaiming
by the wild places?

© Philip  Lancaster, 2011

Recording Songs & Poems by Ivor Gurney

Recording Gurney in Powys with Gavin Roberts

Recording Gurney in Powys with Gavin Roberts

Earlier in the year, in a programme note for a recital I was giving as part of the English Music Festival, I got on my soap-box about the matter of programme planning:

Planning a recital programme can one of life’s great delights: How best can one fill an hour and a half of silence? One could put down old favourites, presenting one song or cycle after another; or one can endeavour to create something that hopes to enlighten not only its audience but also the works themselves by presenting them in a new context. The vocal recital presents more scope for a cohesive programme than an instrumental recital, being able to bring together a procession of not only music, but also of poetry, without which it can be easy to forget song would not exist.

Recitals are ephemeral things, and while the programme book may sit on the shelves of one of those attending, given the often specific requests or preferences of the respective promoters it is rare, in my limited but growing experience, for one to be able to repeat a programme.

When in November 2011 I was invited by Andrew McNeillie to record a CD of songs and poems by Ivor Gurney for Clutag Press, there came an opportunity to nail my colours to the mast in a medium that would, for better or for worse, be permanent.  As with a recital, it would be easy to lump together a series of songs and poems without too much thought – and indeed many such recital discs of a stream of single, apparently unconnected songs are in the catalogue.  But when programming the CD I sought to do something unique; something that took you on a journey akin to that such as Schubert’s Winterreise.

For six or seven years now I have been researching the work of Ivor Gurney, initially producing the first complete catalogue of his musical works, editing some of those musical works for performance, broadcast, recording and publication, and am in the process of editing, with Tim Kendall, Gurney’s complete poetry for publication in 3 volumes by Oxford University Press.

Being commissioned by a poetry press, poetry was always going to play an important role in the programme, and Gurney, being both composer and poet, was ripe for this treatment.  So when it came to the programming of this disk I had a plethora of material available to me: those of Gurney’s 330 songs that have been published or edited for performance, and all of the c.1500 poems and fragments, only a third of which have so far been published. And explored Gurney’s work in my research more extensively than perhaps any have been able to do so to date, I was in a unique position to create something that reflected his ideas and artistic preoccupations.  In selecting the songs and poems I sought to create connections between those original poems he wrote and those by others that he set to music.  For instance, an unpublished poetry fragment from 1921-2 almost exactly reflects Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Lights Out’, which Gurney set to music in 1918.  And so in the CD programme we encounter in both Gurney’s poetry and his musical settings his love of tales and Border Ballads; his love of the Severn vale, its river and environs; the war and its aftermath; and Gurney’s unfulfilled desire to go to sea, particularly as told through his affection for the Irish poets and their native land.  Within this programme there are recurrent motifs that I hope bind the programme together and create something quite unique; a programme that, while not a true narrative, is bound by a continuous thread.  For those who know Gurney’s work well, it should be of particular interest in that it includes several premieres: five songs that have not previously been recorded either at all or in the version presented, and eight as yet unpublished poems.

We finally went ‘into the studio’ last week – a week in which I also completed my doctoral thesis on Gurney – when pianist Gavin Roberts and I ventured into frost-bitten Powys to a place of great beauty and isolation in which is was our great pleasure to bring the programme, that had for some months been settled on paper, to an audio reality.

Whilst preparing for the recording I began to have doubts about some of the poems I had selected.  I then revisited the context in which those poems would be read, and was reassured; but when it came to the recording, and we began to bring the songs and poems to performance or reading, the selection was more than vindicated.  If all comes out in the wash, I hope the disc, provisionally entitled ‘The Far Country’, will be very special.  Fingers crossed that the first edits live up to our hopes and expectations.  In due course, do visit either my own website (www.philiplancaster.com) or the Clutag Press site, where details of the recording will be posted, once available, which we hope will be in May 2013.