The Creative Process of poet John Gallas
John Gallas has published 22 collections of poetry, 11 with Carcanet Press, and is described on his website as ‘the greatest New Zealand poet no one has ever heard of’ in The Spinoff. He is a Fellow of the English Association, won the International Welsh Poetry Competition in 2009, was the Joint Winner of the Indigo Dreams Pamphlet Prize in 2016 and was the St Magnus Festival poet in Orkney in the same year. Gallas donated a collection of draft manuscript notebooks of poetry to the John Rylands Library Special Collections in 2020.
The resource below is an analysis by Gallas of the process of writing the poem Somewhere down Hurdletree Gate in November 2020.
The Maker’s Progress
‘Then, rising with Aurora’s light,
The Muse invoked, sit down to write;
Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline’
-Swift, ‘On Poetry’
Somewhere down Hurdletree Gate
The event described in the poem is true. Whilst looking, on my bike, for a way between Hurdletree Gate and Fenland Airfield, I chanced on a small sealed track, half way down which I saw these folk. It was early Autumn, windy and dully clouded. Having a caravan in Lincolnshire that I visit every week I have biked about the roads, lanes and droves thereabouts for hours, days, weeks and years.
I dismounted when I saw and heard them in the distance. I stood with my bike in the shelter of a bit of brokendown hedgerow as they passed. I said Hello. A couple of the five nodded back. They faded into the distance. I did rather stare at their backs. Then I continued and found that the track brought me out a couple of miles from the Airfield. I continued back to the caravan against the wind.
2. Bubbling under
Was there ever an experience so obviously deserving of a poem? I made no notes (I usually scribble some for later use when I get to pen and paper: details and an early phrase or two that rings right) but the vision stayed with me. I started writing the poem nearly a year after. This is not unusual for me. But why start? Why does the delay finally end? Because on a walk round my local quarry-track I found myself trying to decide on the word ‘down’. Slowly but surely, the first line formed : not ‘Somewhere on/by/in/along or off’ (though ‘off’ lingered, I thought it uglier : ‘along’ spoiled the metre) — and, naturally, required the second line, and so on.
3. Bubbling over
The first 8-line section, it is clear from the notebook, was pre-made: this happens in my head, usually, before I start writing things down, and is the second, and confirming, prod to get the poem made. This happened whilst driving to the Co-Op in my van. Using the finished first line, I blathered mentally in, out and roundabout to make this one sentence, which I wanted simple, plain and scene-setting, including, of course, ‘I’. The relatively unaltered state of this sentence in the notebook, amended quickly with bold marks indicating a New Line, does not mean it was not agonising. All poetry writing is, for me, agonising. I will do anything to avoid it, from simply going out for the day to watching a film, doing a large jigsaw or pretending to be T.E. Lawrence. But of course there is no escape. The word-order and rhythms, once in the brain, have to be put to work in the service of some finished thing. Once the van-first-verse was done in my head, of course, I rushed to the notebook when I got home with the Digestives to get it down before I forgot it. This impulse is vital for me in getting, as you might say, well going.
This, then, is a good place to mention my Theory of Poetry. It applies only to me. Considering the fussing, agonies, torture, Thesauruses, rhyming dictionaries, crossings-out, puttings-in, no wonder I avoid the process, and no wonder it is irresistible once started. I believe, a bit weirdly, that somewhere each poem exists perfectly made, and it is towards this I am, literally, fighting. I don’t know where these perfections are lurking, under the bed, in heaven, in a parallel brain if I have one, somewhere Platonic, and I’m sure Jung would have something to say about the idea, but why else do I scratch and search so compulsively, and remain so deeply unsatisfied until it is Right? The theory is, I tell myself when I feel it especially ridiculous, perfectly feasible because when I feel I do get it right, or , more tellingly, know that it is right, and this can be an exhausting process in its intensity, it is Right. Which means I have done it, and found that thing under the bed, or in heaven. The exultation and joy experienced at this point is, for me, the deep satisfaction of writing.
Titles can add an extra element to a poem, describe it in a simple or complex, direct or allusive way, or do nothing at all. In this case I decided on its doing nothing at all. I did not even consider ‘Brigadoon in Lincolnshire’, ‘Thomas Hardy’s Ghost Descends’ or even ‘Vision on a Bike’, because I had no wish to add any layers or comments to the poem’s content. Why? Because I wanted strongly to avoid comment and thus leave the mystery just an uninterpreted wonder, and second because the poem turned out, according to this intention, to be plain and relatively undecorated. The notebook shows that the much-mulled first line was written as the first line and underlined at the end of the process as the title. The word ‘title’ above it is a bit of a giveaway. So the poem’s evolution dictated the not-adding title.
Like all poets, I have written poems with wildly varying employments of poeticals: images, metaphors, rhymes, alliterations, conceits, all of what Swift calls ‘Th’artillery of words’. Swift also said that style is ‘Proper words in proper places’, which of course is right in its own way for each writer. The general style I wanted in this poem was (relatively) plain, or that it should appear plain. Why? Because the event was real, and the event was soul-shiveringly strange: only an exact description could convey to the reader what happened, and thus inspire in her/him the elements of awe and amusement I felt myself. These poeticals are worth looking at.
(i) images of all kinds
In 56 lines there are, I think, only 7. From the obvious ‘join of an open book’ for the track between two fields, and its sister-image of the planes landing along ‘the neat green pages of their landingstrip’ (is there somewhere here Hardy’s hair-parting at the start of ‘Return of the Native? He was surely in my mind, given the look of the strangers) to the ‘tray’ of cloud, the ‘O’ of light, the ‘organpipes of wind’, nothing is as taxing as a Donne conceit, but employed only to add detail, and not intentionally other-worldly detail, to the description. The ‘piston-pins’ are a little more in the Donne way, especially as they ‘drive the engine of some song’ which means the image applies to sight (bobbing) and sound (their song), and also to my distant apprehension of their appearance.
(ii) the ruler
Central to the crux of a Vision, that intercut between the plain and the wonderful, which is, of course, the point of the whole poem, the image of the ruler is central and vital. The point is made, literally, that I had lost my way, my usual way, both in fact and in perception of the world. The image of ‘a ruler no one ever cut a measure on’ tries to convey a kind of slippage from the real world (reinforced by the ‘day that it was there’) that does hint at Brigadoon-type manifestations from the fogs of time and enchantment. This took a long time: its knot of imagery-within-the-image worked in the end for me because it also encapsulated ‘cutting a measure’ meaning dancing to music, which is (well, almost) what the approaching fellows were doing. It is worth noting that beside this tight knot, sections 4 and 7 are completely clear of any imagery of any kind and the reader gets a rest.
(iii) proper words
Again, the intention was to be plain. There are some exceptions but not many. Apart from the images described above, there is only ‘slow wise’, there for metre and a neat (I thought) semi-link to the Hardyish times the vision evoked in me, and the use of undisciplined (because there are two hyphenated words) compound words that are not really compound words but merely missing hyphens (‘organpipes’,’landingstrip’, ‘applecheeked’, ‘squeezebox’ etc.) which have no reason other than that I like them, use them often, and always have. I suppose they are a bit Old English and Hopkins-like, but have always been my way.
(iv) a small but knotty decision
And what of ‘from out my crowded brain’? How a poet fusses. The only alternative was ‘from out of my crowded brain’. This second is clearer and more, um, modern. Probably this is why I settled for the first. This choice of one word included or omitted took 2 days of thinking and saying over and over. To some, it will look like a printing mistake, and nothing can be done about that though it would, of course, like any printing mistake, spoil the poem and be all the reader remembers about it. I thought it worth the gamble : ‘from out my crowded brain’ is right for rhythm, has little ancient-modern echoes, suits the mock-heroic ‘Vasty Veil of Time’, and has, perhaps, a little hint of ‘clouded’.
(v) rhyme and alliteration/assonance
Alliteration first. It is noted above that Old English poetry and Hopkins are influences and long have been. The liking for and thus use of alliteration comes naturally to me as an alternative binding-agent in a poem, preferable to rhyme for its kind of crunchy tellingness. The use of alliteration in this poem is not for any effect made for this particular poem: it is in my general style. These are easy to find (‘blustered/browny/bounce’, ‘organpipes/Os/ochre’, ‘Vasty Veil’, ‘small sealed’, ‘tiny/tenors’). I believe all poems should have ‘binding-agents’ to differentiate them from lines in prose. Rhyme is another matter entirely because it is, in its way, more artificial and its use therefore more intentionally chosen for a more purposeful, or entertaining, effect. In this poem I’ve used rhyme often, both concealed, semi-concealed and as obvious as a couplet at the end of a Shakespeare scene. As a ‘binding’ believer, again, rhyme is no stranger to my poetry. I count 7 (?) identifiable rhyming efforts. Neatly, when analysed, they cover the necessary variety. ‘one/runs’, helped by the arrangement of lines, is occasional, as are the more obvious ‘billycocks/smocks’ and ‘rack/back’. There is a triple (‘away/say/way’) and a separated verse-ender (‘alright/sight’). And who could resist the home-coming finality of a rhyme at the end? ‘return/Holbeach Hurn’ makes all well, after the vision and the wind, we are back at the caravan with a cup of coffee and the makings of a poem. But it is a lie — of which more now.
7. artistic licenses
Have I, in this poem, lied in any way for poetic effect? Yes. But only twice. I think both can be forgiven, though it might be thought not in the second case. First, I returned to Old Fendyke, near Sutton St. James, not Holbeach Hurn. Of course, it’s the rhyme. However, so complex is the making of a poem, this does not really explain things. I could have found rhymes for the place/s I really did return to, but chose Holbeach Hurn because the name, passed countless times on my bikings around the area, was one that interested me, appealed to me, and made me bike through the place itself whenever I could. I liked ending up there, lexically, more than where I really did. I hope that is harmless. The other, more poetical-frowny, is the scythe. All the items carried by the visionary crew, and their singing, are exact, apart from the scythe. I wanted it, I put it in, and I like it. There is not the slightest hint of Reapers, Death or Grimness intended. If there is ever an unlikely Academic Analysis of this poem it will think so, but it would be wrong. What I like is the picture of it bobbing in the air above the singing heads. Is a small like enough of an excuse to put a symbol-laden item in the poem despite its literary-historical weightiness? There is a wonderful section in Nashe’s ‘Unfortunate Traveller’ in which the traveller himself, baffled by the wildly and acceleratingly ornate symbolism of the dress of the knights he is watching in a tourney, confesses at the sight of a helmet topped with watering-cans that he has no idea what this means. S/he who does not interpret sees more.
8. last words: age, bikepoems and personal style
When a poet has lived near 50 years among poems, both her/his own and those of others, kinds of simplicity often become the way of things. Some turn (as I have at times) to translations and versions, putting themselves more selflessly in the history of poetic writing. Others pare away the ornamentations, excesses and more convoluted fireworks more suited to young blades. We are not Rimbauds anymore. Most find a sort of middle ground. When this poem was done, I thought it plain, and was pleased that it was plain naturally, ie. as it transpired. Not only did it fit its purpose, but it suited me at this later stage of my writing. The notebooks show (pp.3 and 4 especially) few alterations, the combined effect of intended plainness and pre-thinking. The more scribbled-on middle sections are, if analysed, simplifications, both of length and complexities. Notebooks from 20 years ago show indecipherable soups and fireworks spread, for a poem of like length as this, over up to 25 pages.
In ‘The Extasie’, my book of love poems, there is a poem called, ‘Poem on a Bike’ that attempts to explain how the gimball in the brain attempts to keep ‘done’ lines of a poem from spilling away into forgetfulness during a bikeride that probably has 4 or 5 hours more of it before the paper and the pen. I have considered carrying a voicerecorder but never done it. There is also a poem called ‘Newton in the Isle’, in which another spooky experience, that of passing a village sign at dusk on the bike and seeing it bloom into light without any apparent source to reflect anywhere near, which had details both factual (the village signs, the names, the surrounding geography) and mental (my feelings) to be remembered. There are other bikepoems in various collections (eg. in ‘Fresh Air & the Story of Molecule’). Walking makes notetaking possible ; driving impossible ; biking is between, but the fact that usually I do not carry a notebook or, even if I did, want to stop because of poetry rather than a fine flock of sheep or a sunny dyke, means, as with this poem, recreating shares in equal measure remembering and fashioning anew.
This poem is not Very Different. It is part of a life’s work that has certainly changed, but gradually enough for its personal style to be natural. To attempt something jazzy or unpunctuated, symbol-laden or super-meaningful, over-comic or over-pastoral was never an option. A poem must be the very best effort at the ‘proper words in the proper places’, and to go against the happy grain the poet now works in would be to throw away or ignore long experience both in thought and expression. I am happy, most happy, at the place I am in, and this contentment becomes part of the expression. Of course, a revolution can be exciting, but a revolution in a language that is not clearly understood can never be impressed on others.
Somewhere down Hurdletree Gate …
Somewhere down Hurdletree Gate
a small sealed track
just wide enough for one
between two sheepfields
down to Fenland Air
like the join of an opened book.
I’ve never found it again
but the day that it was there
I pedalled along in slow, slow wise
under a tray of brownbright cloud
while organpipes of wind
played sideways at me
where the hedgerows’ thorny gaps
made Os of ochre light.
I stopped because I lost my way.
I mean, my usual way :
as if I biked along a ruler
no one ever cut a measure on,
adrift in narrow straits. Then I saw them.
Five heads bobbing up the road
like soft piston-pins
driving the engine of some song.
They came and went : in billycocks
and applecheeked, cordy-breeches, smocks,
boots, a scythe, a bell, a rake,
one squeezebox and a choir of four.
I said Hello. They touched their hats.
I watched their backs grow tiny
and their tenors
Byway or highway, let me say
it’s not my way
to tear at the Vasty Veil of Time
or conjure Ghosts
from out of my crowded brain :
oh they were there alright,
in plain sight.
At Fenland Air
the little biplanes
blustered in the browny rack
and bounced back
down to earth
along the neat green pages of
into the wind
and so did I.
Eight miles home
the waypost said.
the gusty weather
to Holbeach Hurn.