David Almond: Guided Tour
“I love this archive. It’s an important reminder that all literature has its roots in the human voice. Black print on white paper is not remote and abstract stuff but grows out from ‘ordinary’ language, is linked to stories told to children at dusk, to gossip and jokes and song. It reaches back to the tales that were spoken and sung long before print existed, to the first stories and spells chanted by firelight in ancient caves. ”
David Almond is the author of Skellig, The Savage, Jackdaw Summer and many other novels, stories and plays. His many awards include The Hans Christian Andersen Award 2010. His work is translated into over thirty languages, and is widely adapted for stage and screen. He lives with his family in Northumberland.
I was seventeen, and a pretty disaffected sixth-former, when I first heard this. It was an ordinary school day. I sat in class expecting another dryish explanation of Paradise Lost or The Clerk's Tale. Instead, the teacher appeared before us, opened his copy of The Waste Land, and without any explanation, he began to read. It was electrifying, and the minutes that followed will stay with me forever. I didn't have a clue what it was about, and of course it still continues to challenge and to mystify, but it also retains what it had on first hearing - its weird directness, energy, drama and beauty. And how great to be able to hear it read by Eliot himself.
Such a strange, affecting, troubling poem. Lovely physical language and rhythms, and harks back to Blake and to the Gospels. And it sits very nicely on the supposed boundary between writing for adults and writing for children. Maybe all writers would like the world to be spontaneously transformed into language as the are for the lunatic boy, to have birds, trees and tigers speaking directly through them - and maybe we all at times yearn for the childish innocence that the poem suggests. But would we really want to be lunatic, to be out of control? Maybe growing up well, and writing well, involves not being completely healed, but retaining a touch of lunacy.
Like the poet, we too moved from the city to the country some years back and at first were appalled by the number of guns (those things that until now had simply been underhand, illicit, lethal) that were around. We came to see (probably as we picked out bits of shot from delicious pheasant given to us by people that we liked) that there was perhaps another aspect to the gun. The poem really does lay the object before us, gives it real physical presence and mythic weight, and shows that the world is, of course, a lot more complex than we’d like it to be.
Here's a great northern poet writing from the north about the great matters of the world, drawing power and particularity from Lindisfarne and its history. It's a poem of wonderfully controlled and expressed anger. The cormorants link the poet on the train to the scribe of centuries ago. Beautiful contrasts are drawn between the passionate slow attention of Eadfrith and the blasphemous vanity of Bush; between candlepower and the blast of bombs. And at the heart of it is the wondering: how can we who live in such times dare to call the age of Eadfrith Dark? And the doubt: 'what poems can do'. Of course the writing of the poem is itself an act of optimism, a creative act to help hold back the forces of destruction.
Another poem with a powerful physical object in it. The poet touches it, wears it, feels it, prays to it in search of its supposed sacramental aspect. But it resists, and leads her away from the faith it is supposed to generate, towards a much more worldly and much more difficult faith - in poetry itself, in the poet's endless wrangle with words and friends and things.