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Maitreyabandhu: On going on too long

I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in my late forties. I’d read poetry fairly deeply by then, I’d read my Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, but the idea of writing poetry seemed, well… embarrassing. Ludicrous. When I did write and even publish poems, I started to attend the T.S Eliot Prize readings. One year someone, I can’t remember who, read from his book-length poem. I thought ‘How silly.’ Who’s going to read that? Three collections later, I find myself in the absurd position of writing a book-length poem: The Commonplace Book. And we’re not talking a slim volume. Oh dear…

The Commonplace Book started life, over four years ago now, as a kind of collage of short fragments. Since antiquity, commonplace books have acted as a kind of scrapbook for proverbs, adages, aphorisms, and maxims. By the late eighteenth-century they became a place to gather your thoughts, jot down an observation, copy a recipe, or note a definition. The fragments of my ‘commonplace book’ grew elephantine, shrunk, or were deleted. Gradually the book started to clarify into blank verse paragraphs divided into sections and grouped together in chapters.

My Buddhist teacher, Urgyen Sangharakshita, had died and I’d had this idea – or rather I discovered I was writing a book-length poem – that I would follow his first post-mortem year, ending with the anniversary of his death. Somewhere along the line I’d re-read Wallace Stevens’ An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, one verse of which struck me with particular force:

These fitful sayings are, also, of tragedy:

The serious reflection is composed

Neither of comic nor tragic but of the commonplace.

Steven’s words chimed with a comment the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald had made in one of her late interviews. Most English people, she said, think ‘life is not important enough to be tragic and too serious to be comic.’ I realised I was writing a tragi-comedy. Or to put it another way, I was writing a book about nothing. Could I sustain a poem at such length about the everyday, the ordinary, the commonplace? After all (I said to myself) that’s what my life mostly consists in. It’s what most of our lives consist in.

There were other considerations. Someone had interviewed me about my previous Bloodaxe Collections. He called me a ‘poet of memory’, especially of childhood memory. That rankled. I wanted to get away from all that. I wanted, as the Buddhists say, to stay in the present.

And I did for a while. But it was taking so long! Soon enough it was three years later and I was still fiddling with Chapter One, Book One – the section that appeared in the Long Poem Magazine. (Oh yes, I’d realised early on that the poem would be in three books, Dante being one of my presiding deities, along with Stevens.) I allowed myself a flashforward. Then a flashback to my father returning from the war. Soon the act of writing the poem became part of the poem. I wrote a section about giving a reading of an earlier part of the poem, quoting the first line. I wrote a section about discussing the form of the poem with a friend, including his doubts about it. I read James Merrill’s Ouija-board epic The Changing Light at Sandover alongside Derek Walcott’s Omeros (I was using the opportunity to read book-length poems: Byron’s Don Juan became important). James Merrill became a figure in the poem along with Walcott and Basho, Dante, Stravinsky, the abstract painter Basil Beattie, and my mother.

My mother… One of the impulses behind the poem was my mother’s declining health. I’d wanted to write about her, and yes, I was afraid she would die. Despite my fears, I never expected her to die whilst I was actually writing the poem. She died late last year. Somehow, I need to find a way of including that…

So the poem has started to become a kind of endless elaboration: a post-modern poem (in a sense), a poem located in the commonplace but like all epics (it’s what Walcott would have called a ‘pseudo-epic’) a poem that wants to propitiate the gods, place our small lives in the context of  history, embrace ‘public and private, cosmic and domestic, the dead and the living – as epic used to, as no short poem can.’[i] The dangers are only too obvious: bagginess, long-windedness, boredom. But the possibilities are rather wonderful. To draw so much together! To find a way of changing tones like key signatures in music; tilting towards rhyme for comedy – some sections are in terza rima, rhyming couplets, ABBA (Merrill’s favourite stanza) – then tilting it back into blank verse again for tragedy. Summer’s rhyme. Autumn’s ‘seriousness’. Trying to bring it all together, the sublime and the ridiculous: my four-month Buddhist retreat, my partner’s affair, my mother’s decline, the girls growing up, my teacher’s death. Body and spirit. Comedy and tragedy. Timelessness and time.

[i]  Clara Claiborne, The Nation

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