Thursday, 9 June 2011

The wastefulness of writing poems; rain; the excellence of sand dams

Writing poetry is so wasteful.  So many poems worked and worked on and abandoned.  Or finished, but unable to fly.  All my drafts are listed on a spreadsheet, but a better representation might be a plane wreck in the desert, bits strewn everywhere.  I don’t know whether to be encouraged or still further depressed when famous writers complain.  Here is Peter Porter, quoted in The Guardian a few months ago: 

Queueing for water, for days, near Mtito,
SE Kenya.  No sand dams here.
“I'm not at all confident about the quality of what I do, and I suffer like all people do, I think, who are writers, an intense disappointment – not at the reception of what I've written, but at my own inability to bring off what I want to bring off. Auden in his introduction to his Collected Poems (well, the first one of his collected poems), said in a writer's work there are usually four categories – he loved categorising things.  First, sheer rubbish which he greatly regrets ever having done.  Second, poems he's got nothing against except they're not very important; they're not very good but, you know, he doesn't hate them.  Third, the saddest of all, the fair notion, fatally injured.  And then the last one, the handful of poems he's truly grateful for, which if he were to publish would make his work seem dangerously slim, and vitiated.”

Seed bank, Kevanda, SE Kenya
 ‘Vitiated’ seems a strange word to use here.  (I’m assuming it’s Auden’s word, not PP’s; I’ve only got A’s Selected.)  I’ve just looked it up. Meanings include: to make incomplete or faulty; to corrupt or deprave; to contaminate; or to invalidate, make ineffectual, make [an argument] inconclusive.  Presumably it’s the first and/or last of these he means.  But why the assumption that it’s dangerous to be slim?  Does the best work need a context; is it all the better when surrounded by middling stuff? 

Of course Auden is the man who in later life described some of his 30’s poems, such as ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ as “trash” which he was “ashamed to have written”.  Thank goodness he wasn’t able to throw them down a memory hole.

Tree nursery, Meka, SE Kenya
It’s raining outside…. a week ago that would have seemed astonishing, as it had rained once since mid-March.  A spring without rain is unnatural.  Anyway at the weekend it rained non-stop all afternoon and evening and night, and some of the next day, and there have been showers ever since.  The effect on birds is amazing – I hadn’t heard a thrush since March, but now they are singing again.  And the blackbirds have got much more vocal.  When I walk along the station platform, I can hear two wrens singing, one either side.  Also the birdsong sounds much more liquid – revived, just as coloured pebbles are by water. 

No robins, though.  A black cat with white paws from across the road killed one of the pair nesting in the ivy hedge, who were my constant garden companions.  I think they raised one brood.  I hope so. 

Rain brings out the poets too.  Which 1950s magazine editor said that whenever it rained, he got lots of rain poems in the next post?  I think Sylvia Plath comes into this story somehow. 

Building a sand dam
 In some places in the world, a year’s only rain can fall in a couple of days. Or not at all.  Have you heard of sand dams?  They provide rural communities in semi-arid areas with clean water, and raise the water table at the same time.  They are low-maintenance and last for decades.  The inspiration for them came from a local farmer. 

Irrigating tomatoes, Mansenviro
You can still listen to John Humphreys making last week's BBC Radio 4 appeal for Excellent, which helps communities build them, here.  The charity’s website is here.  I’ve been to Kenya and seen sand dams, and talked to communities about the huge difference it’s made to their lives – diet, health, earning an income, going to school.  It’s wonderful.  Travelling around, valleys with sand dams are terraced and green with fields and trees; valleys without are the colour of earth and sand.  

“Your heart is your forest”.  Kenyan saying

I try to post something on this blog every week.  I won’t be posting anything next week, as I’ll be away.   

Kevanda self-help group discussion

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