Writing outside in the present moment

by Sean Borodale

I have often wondered how a poem begins. If I sat down at a bare table with a pencil and a piece of paper, I wonder if anything would happen at all.

Writing a poem

I have often wondered how a poem begins. If I sat down at a bare table with a pencil and a piece of paper, I wonder if anything would happen at all. It might eventually, but I prefer to write in the pressure of time and with the chaos of phenomena. And because a poem is, in this way, wrought in with the kinetics of another activity, like walking, or beekeeping, or gardening even, it taps the close-range of an energy. I like to imagine that those inner guards that stop oddities and peculiarities creeping in just aren’t quick enough to censor things when you write in a given moment. As Philip Larkin says, “Poetry is a strange thing”.

That’s not to say that stillness and space are not vital; often they are, but stillness and space are enigmas, bringing other problems and potentials. Nor is it to say that poems written in the field are simply automatic. Poems are often lived with for a considerable time before they are ‘written’.

There is so much to get lost in, to be terrified by and awe-struck in a garden; not to mention the inexplicable miracle of life. My five-year-old son tells me that birds are dinosaurs and this extended way of looking at things opens extraordinary possibilities. 

In the language of quantum mechanics, the world is always slightly out of focus. And that is a good place to start, for me: at the limits of focus where I struggle to see. I love writing outside at dusk for this reason, when the other senses take over sight. What is it like to enter the scale or duration of another creature? Or the scent-world of a bee? Or the earth-world of a worm? The connective power of the simile feels faster than any telecommunications we have to date and I’ve always found writing live to be a good simile generator.

Listening to the sound of a hive at night with your ear to the box, you can hear a song stretching continuously back over the 50 million years of the bee's existence. It can be surprising to lean closer into the worlds of other species, to press the senses against them, to attempt the archetype of the discovery moment: what if I put this with this; or leave this for that time, in the manner of craft, fitting together?

My notebook pages are marked with rain, pollen, stains of wax, propolis, streaks of honey, even one or two dead bees. Gardening gives many opportunities for gathering talismans: seeds, bones, coins in the ground. Robert Graves used to keep a small ancient fragment or relic from the period he was writing about on his desk: an invoking device.

We used to joke at home that Coleridge wrote the Ancient Mariner because of the steep, short inclines in the Quantocks, where he and the Wordsworths walked: that his panting established the ballad’s momentum: It is - an - ancient - mariner -. Reciting or composing when climbing a steep hill quickly, or digging, or pruning high branches for some time, and the breath inclines towards a different kind of speech.

I’ve never felt I had the authority or conviction to say a poem of my own is finished: they leave home when they feel like it. I have invented many mechanisms in my work for not dealing with this problem of completion; if anything, it’s just something that feels right about that lonely last sound, before the voice goes back in under listening and looking - and the world returns.

Sean Borodale is a poet and author of Bee Journal.

The results of this year's Gardeners' World Magazine poetry competition will be revealed in the December issue, on sale from Thursday, 22 November.

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