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Poet of the Week – 12: Ian House

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—12: IAN HOUSE

Ian House was born in Reading during the Second World War. A child of the 1944 Education Act and the grammar school, he read Philosophy, Politics and (a vanishingly small amount of) Economics at St John’s College, Oxford, and then taught English in schools in Derbyshire, Somerset and Yorkshire, experiences which led him to conclude that a Quaker school, with its commitments to peace and equality, would be a place in which staff and students might get on in a sensible way. When the opportunity for a job at Leighton Park came up, he returned with misgivings to Reading. During twenty-four years at the school, he enjoyed a sabbatical term at St John’s College, Cambridge, which revived his brain and doubtless impaired his liver, and an exchange-year teaching in Philadelphia.

On taking early retirement he taught English in adult language schools in Moscow, Budapest and Prague and, on returning to England, began writing poetry. His three collections, all with Two Rivers Press, are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2020).

Ian House writes:

Although ‘Spinning Yarn’, Part II of my new collection, is implicitly about the making of poems, there is nothing I desire less than to investigate in prose the reason I write poems. The less I know, I suspect, the better. I observe my ‘practice’, with interest, from the outside. An experience or observation makes me feel, for some unknown reason, that there’s a poem there. I wander around for a day or two, doing the thises and thats of living, unconsciously incubating. Possibly I’m writing the poem to find out why I’m writing it. Certainly, I have no idea, when I start, where it’s going. If I do have an idea, the poem will be stillborn. I write a lot very fast, crossing out and revising, crossing out and revising … then I start over with a few rescued lines and write a lot, very fast, crossing out and revising; I do this three or four times, aware mainly of the physical pleasure of transmission from brain down arm and hand through pen to page. When I sense there’s something that feels like a poem awaiting birth, I put it onto the computer, and tinker with it for an intermittent two or three days and let it totter off. After about seven years I’d be capable of re-reading it without a sense of paternity to see if it has any merit.

At the front of the binder in which I keep the hard copies of my poems there are two sheets of paper. The first says simply, ‘Be Real. Be Surreal. NOT What do I think about it? BUT How does it feel?’ Useful advices I always bore in mind when I started writing seriously in 2001. The second sheet contains several quotations about the sun, the source of all light and sustenance. They include Chaucer’s charming and profound, ‘Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye’; Lowell’s beautiful prayer, ‘Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/ to his girl solid with yearning’; crowning all, Whitman’s understanding of the relation of the poet to the sun, ‘Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me/ If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.’ Little wonder that I see the two poems based on Paul Nash’s paintings of sunflowers as central to my new collection. Sally Castle’s sunflower on the cover does indeed burn.

If, on a good day, the sun fuels my poems, Wallace Stevens is their guiding star. The Man with the Blue Guitar makes the high and necessary claim that ‘Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns’. Yet Stevens can ground a poem in the simplest of situations, noticing how ‘The mother ties the hair-ribbons of the child/ And she has peace’ or taking in old age ‘one last look at the ducks’ in the local park. His poems ‘were of a remembered time/ Or something seen that he liked’. And so are many of mine.

One of Stevens’s miracles is that he doesn’t so much describe a situation as create it, charm it into being as in ‘The Poems of Our Climate’:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow …

Would that I could get anywhere near that intensity without straining. Or write poems that invite or compel the deep attentiveness of which he writes so movingly in ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’: ‘The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book.’ Or write a poem of which it could truly be said that it is ‘the cry of its occasion, /Part of the res itself and not about it.’

As well as his example, Stevens has given us handy tips always in my mind: ‘It Must Be Abstract’ (distilling something from the concretes); ‘It Must Change’ (be responsive to the flux of living); ‘It Must Give Pleasure’ (as an artefact in words, not sounding, unless for special effect, like the ‘skreaking and skittering’ of grackles). The poems in the Paul Nash sequence, meditating on the poetic imagination, bear similar titles. All that said, my poems are nothing like Stevens’s anymore than I’m like the mackerel that fed me for lunch today.

IT MUST BURN

~Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945

blazing yellows and oranges
intenser than all imagining
fierce as a fusion reactor
self-unsparing self-consuming
the sunflower hurtles downhill
freewheeling fertiliser of crops
cutting a swathe
through grass and standing corn
like a top whipped on by the sun
outpouring of nature’s juices
ah sunflower outrunning time
headlong career, suspended
at this moment for ever
leaps the frame and continues

[from Just a Moment]

THE TEARS OF THE WORLD

Unrestrained the shrieks of children
at fleeting abandonments, minor betrayals,
the vastness and urgency
of scraped knees and small losses.

In silent rooms, during polite conversations,
imagine the thickness
of the calluses we have accreted. Listen
to the wind that rattles the shutters.

[Uncollected]

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