One night, I lay awake for hours, just terrified. When the dawn finally came up – the comfortable blue sky, the familiar world returning – I could think of no other way to express my relief than through poetry. I made a decision there and then that it was what I wanted to do. Every time I pulled a wishbone, it was what I asked for.
It’s a relief to hear the rain. It’s the sound of billions of drops, all equal, all equally committed to falling, like a sudden outbreak of democracy. Water, when it hits the ground, instantly becomes a puddle or rivulet or flood.
Most spiders eat and remake their webs every night.
I believe the poet shouldn’t be in the poem at all except as a lens or as ears.
At each moment, a poem might grow into a totally different shape. It is not so much like working in a garden. It is more as if you remade the garden every day.
I much preferred Latin to Greek. I loved the language being such a pattern that you could not shift a word without the whole sentence falling to pieces.
At eight, I made a commitment to poetry. Until then, I thought I’d be a policeman. But I went a whole night without sleeping, and the next day the world had changed. It needed a different language.
I never meant to be a full-time poet: I started out as a gardener, an ideal job for a poet because your head is left free.
To be a poet is as serious, long-term and natural as the effort to be the best human you can be. To express something well is not a question of having a top-class education and understanding poetic forms: rather, it’s a question of paying attention.
I like Patti Smith’s lyrics, and sometimes think I could be influenced by them. But she has a kind of cool that’s beyond me.
I try not to invent; I try simply to translate the weird language of the natural world. And I’m not into absolute ownership of things.
Even when writing your own poems, you need to talk to people; you need to magpie around, getting words and things. I’m very against the celebrity culture that wants to say: ‘this is a genius, this is one person who has done something brilliant.’ There are always a hundred people in the background who have helped to make it.
I’ve always felt, with ‘The Iliad,’ a real frustration that it’s read wrong. That it’s turned into this public school poem, which I don’t think it is. That glamorising of war, and white-limbed, flowing-haired Greek heroes – it’s become a cliched, British empire part of our culture.
It’s a question of trying to take down by dictation what’s already there. I’m not making something, I’m trying to hear it.
People are so used to reading novels now, they just read a poem straight through to get the meaning. And that’s something totally different from the slow way you read something if it’s a tune; which to me a poem has to be.
I really think there are spirits in a place that you have to accommodate.
I hate not managing to speak clearly. I really hate it. I get a feeling of claustrophobia – like I’m locked in my own head – if what I’ve said hasn’t reached someone.
There’s a whole range of words that people use about landscape. Pastoral? Idyll? I can’t stand them.
I have this exercise where I force myself to look out from the flower’s point of view at these great walloping humans coming down the path, and try, just try and feel it from their point of view because it’s a different world to them, a fascinating hard one.
There’s a lot of rage in my head. I like the friction that means there is nothing relaxing about writing a poem. I can’t afford to relax in any area of life. You have to keep your senses awake to all the complacency that kicks in – particularly for the English.
I think it is the easiest mentality for a human being to be either colonized or to colonize. The structure of either the slave or the master seems to be the simplest and the most relaxing one to slip into. Either you are a slave, and you don’t have to think for yourself, or you’re a master, and you don’t have to work for yourself.
A dead tree, cut into planks and read from one end to the other, is a kind of line graph, with dates down one side and height along the other, as if trees, like mathematicians, had found a way of turning time into form.
A living tree is a changing, sleeve shape, a wet, thin, bright green creature that survives in the thin layer between heartwood and bark. It stands waiting for light, which it catches in the close-woven sieves of its leaves.
When the wind blows through a wood, its mass is cut and closed by every leaf, forming a train of jittery vortices in the air.
If you bend a branch until it’s horizontal, the sap will slow to a stopping point: a comma or colon, made of leaves grown into one another and over one another and hardened. Out of this pause comes a flower, which unfolds itself in spirals, as if the leaf form, unable to keep to its line, had begun to pivot.
Webs are made mostly of spaces. They break easily. They barely exist. They belong to the category of half-things: mist, smoke, shrouds, ghosts, membranes, retinas or rags; and they quickly fill up with un-things: old legs and wings and heads and hollow abdomens and body bags of wasps.
The sea has this contradictory quality, that the more you see of it, the more it overwhelms the eye and disappears in its own brightness. Like a flame, whose meaning is light but whose centre is dark, it demands to be undefined.
Spring, when the earth tilts closer to the sun, runs a strict timetable of flowers.
Topsoil is a place of digestion. It sucks and chews things into smaller pieces. When it’s hungry, it turns grey and stony; when it’s thirsty, it opens thousands of cracked lips. Subsoil is more skeletal: it doesn’t digest.
It’s the stickiness of earth that makes it problematic – the way it stains your straps and ingrains your hands so you can’t quite tell where you start and stop.
Wind ought to be a verb or an adverb. It isn’t really anything. It’s a manner of movement of warmth and cold: a kind of information system of the air.
If you put a real leaf and a silk leaf side by side, you’ll see something of the difference between Homer’s poetry and anyone else’s. There seem to be real leaves still alive in the ‘Iliad,’ real animals, real people, real light attending everything.
When I was 16, I was taught by a wonderful teacher who let me ignore the Greek syllabus and just read Homer.
Stripped of its plot, the ‘Iliad’ is a scattering of names and biographies of ordinary soldiers: men who trip over their shields, lose their courage or miss their wives. In addition to these, there is a cast of anonymous people: the farmers, walkers, mothers, neighbours who inhabit its similes.
One of the rules of Greek lament poetry is that it mustn’t mention the dead by name in case of invoking a ghost. Maybe the ‘Iliad,’ crowded with names, is more than a poem. Maybe it’s a dangerous piece of the brightness of both this world and the next.
I think it’s often assumed that the role of poetry is to comfort, but for me, poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don’t mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking.
There are times when the voice of repining is completely drowned out by various louder voices: the voice of government, the voice of taste, the voice of celebrity, the voice of the real world, the voice of fear and force, the voice of gossip.
That is the best instruction you could ever give a poet: whether you’re examining a bad line in a poem or a bad motive for action, keep well your repining – meaning, don’t ignore the honest muttering in your head.