Armitage, Astronauts, and Archibald MacLeish

Oh lordy.

It was about this time last year that I started writing a poem based on another poem, with one eye towards finally having an entry for the Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize (theme this year: gold). Last year my effort ballooned into the monster finally known as “Fare”, and swallowed three months of my life. (And missed the deadline for the comp by a laughable amount.) For the last fortnight I’ve been toying with a poem that started out in the final Reading for Writing class of last term. It was based on “The Patent”; Simon Armitage‘s lovely elegy for Michael Donaghy. The exercise involved taking the end words of each line and writing them down in reverse order, then using them to trigger a new poem. (Writing them down in reverse is a nifty trick to help break away from the original poem.)

So far, so good. Except it never ends that way. My first draft had an astronaut, bobbing about in space, looking back at the earth. I really liked where it was going,and the way it circled back on itself. Apart from everything else, it felt really good to be writing again. But then I got to wondering about what equipment, exactly, an astronaut used during a spacewalk. What attached them to the spaceship? What were the limitations? So I did what we all do these days: Googled.

Two weeks later …

Ok, not quite that bad. But I did get utterly engrossed in the story of the first spacewalk (or EVA) – this link will take you to the basic Wikipedia article on the first one, the Voskhod 2 mission, and this to the even more fascinating article by the man himself, Alexei Leonov, talking about what really happened, and the half dozen ways it almost went catastrophically wrong. (It really is worth reading.) My board got covered by notes and calculations and photographs and phrases. Way too much fun. And after a week of that, I realised that actually writing the poem had slipped down the list of priorities rather catastrophically. Sigh!

Anyway, I’m more or less back on track. Although I’ve lost another day’s worth of work to web-surfing images of earth from space, especially a group of images tagged “crescent earth” … isn’t this one gorgeous? (And we live here! Suck on that, Martians!) NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day is an amazing website. Just don’t go there if you’ve only got a few minutes to spare …

Ahem. Anyway, I’ve finally managed to get a decently solid first draft down. Trying not to think about things like “is this poem necessary?” (yes, for the sake of my sanity and self-esteem) and “is this a really good poem?” (my response to that question is best transcribed using a random array of symbols). As for trying to fit all my research in … at one of my first residencies at Glamorgan, the guest writer was Des Barry, who had worked as a research assistant for Peter Carey when he was writing his Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning novel, Jack Maggs. I remember Des talking about spending months researching the details of how quill pens were made; which feathers were best, how they varied, how long they lasted, the inks, the paper, the whole business. And all this painstaking research came down to one sentence in the final book, which ran something like “He cut the quill to a 45 degree angle”. So really, my two weeks of absorption in side matters barely rates as a blip. Besides, as my mother always says, no knowledge is ever wasted.  Who knows when it will come in handy?Ed White performs first U.S. spacewalk - GPN-2006-000025

So where does Archibald MacLeish come into things? Easy. There’s a gorgeous poem of his called “You, Andrew Marvell”, (American poet Mark Strand wrote a lovely piece about it in The Weather of Words, and you can read the essay itself here – highly recommended!) supposedly written in response to Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, although to me it feels more like a response to “To the Virgins, To Make the Most of Time”. Either way, it’s a very eerie and quite beautiful piece, and the first stanza just chimes perfectly with the mood of the poem I’m trying to write:

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

(For copyright reasons I won’t paste the whole thing in, but you can read it for yourself here.)

So that’s where I am at the moment. It’s a good place, as long as the writing continues.
I just have to try an avoid any further distrac—


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