The Elusive Book

For several years, when other projects allow, I have been working on a book: a big critical study of Ivor Gurney’s music and poetry. I really have been working on it, although it is not yet as much in evidence as it should be. To be frank, it should — as other things —have been finished by now, and even (I add, optimistically) be on your bookshelf. But it isn’t. More fundamentally for me, its absence is probably why I don’t currently have a job. 

There are excuses aplenty: We have moved house twice, the first time relocating by 200 miles; we have had four children (in 7 years); and my composition work has become increasingly important.  But I have been Gurneying. Indeed some of my other work on Gurney, projects that are enormously consuming by themselves, are an absolute prerequisite for the book. The cataloguing of the archive has been a far more monstrous task than I or anyone else envisaged, and that has taken much time away from my co-edition, with Tim Kendall, of Gurney’s complete poetry (more on this very soon!), never mind the book. 

But the book has been developing: Over 30,000 words have been drafted, although by the Plan of the book there is a generous 100,000 or so left to go. That Plan, the structuring of the book, however, has occupied more hours of thought and worry than has been spent on the writing. It has been almost nightmarish, causing moments of despair.  How do you best structure a book dealing with the driving forces behind an artist’s work, when so many of the ideas weave together in a rich tapestry of influences across time and genre? The problem is that I am purposely avoiding the biographical detail of Gurney’s life as much as is possible. I cannot avoid them, and must indeed engage in some depth with some of fundamental elements of his life in relating his work; but his biography has done huge damage to the reception and perception of Gurney’s music and poetry. By avoiding the narrative of the biography, there is no ready-made thread on which to hang the critical insights. The book needs to be structured otherwise — likely thematically — weaving its own tapestry of interrelationships that manages to reveal and give insight into the threads within the work and artist by unraveling the threads woven into that work. 

In trying to find the way through, I have produced numerous lists, schematics, incomprehensible webs of relationships between key subjects and figures, structures and book plans. It took me a long while — indeed until only a matter of 9 months or so ago — to decide that the only way to find the solution is to write it; to start from the beginning and write it in order from beginning to end, rather than drafting chapters and putting them together later; to allow the structural difficulties to resolve themselves and evolve through the controlled organicism of that writing. The only way out is through, as (I think) Robert Frost said. 

Coming to this realisation was surprisingly liberating. Rather than worrying about the whole and its complex interrelationships, I can just focus on a small part. The whole will gradually become apparent. Which is not to say that I am no longer working to a plan. I am, and that quite a detailed one. I know where it’s going, and when I get there I shall be able to resolve bit by bit how I reconcile, for example, the entwining ideas of place, history, war, landscape, memory, and writers such as Whitman and Edward Thomas, in their several permutations and disparate facets as representation and influence upon both his music and poetry (which I am dealing with concurrently, not separately). So, it has been slow progress, but for this last 9 months it has been progressing in a pleasing way, with growing excitement and confidence, when time allows. The journey is far from over, but I feel better equipped now than ever before. I am no longer packing: I have set out on the journey and am getting into my stride. I shall perhaps bore you with thoughts on the writing and ideas being pursued in later posts. The book’s title (it has had a few): ‘The Gathering Mind’. 

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