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Measure a Circle, Beginning Anywhere: Poetry Through a Fortean Lens

Ahead of his upcoming weekend workshop, Extrasensory Perceptions, tutor Caleb Parkin writes on ‘Fortean’ Poetry.


The Fortean Times has been my holiday treat for quite some time now. What could be better than spending a journey engaged in the peculiar, peripheral and puzzling?

Let’s get some of the stereotypes out of the way: tinfoil hats; incessant alien abductions; a willingness to believe any madcap conspiracy on offer; an obsession with The X-Files. (That last one happens to be true for my 90s teenage self, but – )

Charles Fort declared that, “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere”. Whatever we know is only partial, probably cyclical, and inherently flawed. The topics of Forteana are only part of the picture too. The real interest comes when we start to think about what the poetic treatment of Green Children, Alien Big Cats (i.e. The Beast of Bodmin), UFOs and Extrasensory Perception (ESP) to name just a few – can tell us about human experiences and realities.

For me, a Fortean way of engaging with the world is also a great one for poetry: open, wondering and playful – and decidedly sceptical. It offers a space to unpack and challenge a whole range of binaries and assumptions: feeling Vs thinking; belief Vs doubt; religion Vs science; peripheral Vs central; humour Vs seriousness; fact Vs opinion; togetherness Vs otherness; explained Vs unexplained; normal Vs paranormal; seen and unseen; and many more.

Another light holiday read of mine was Jane Hirshfield’s collection of essays, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. Fortean Poetry can offer all three – that which usually remains unseen (think Nessy or ghosts), which resists certainty (conspiracies!) or startles us out of our previously-held beliefs (as, presumably, meeting aliens might). Hirshfield writes: “The world’s beauty continually surprises, in no small part because it is not controlled by self or what self knows”. Experiencing phenomena as super-natural and para-normal might not be scary: it could be wonderful. What happens if we re-explore our daily lives as Forteans – experience the kettle boiling as a brand new and unseen phenomenon? See the otherworldliness in the everyday.

My survey of potentially Fortean Poetry has turned up a rich seam of the occult – as in the recent anthology Spells – and we’ll experiment (carefully) with the place of magic and witchcraft in our writing. Does writing with intent make anything happen?

Images of the ghostly and ‘spectropoetics’ – from Eavan Boland back to John Donne (and my own poems) – are an important thread. When we talk about ghosts – as Edgar Allen Poe did often – we’re really confronting much larger concerns about death and loss, among others. There’s a huge amount of children’s poetry about ghosts – but as metaphors or symbols, they should be treated with caution.

Fort said, “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while”. Over the weekend, I’d like us to engage with poetry in true Fortean style: sceptically, playfully, wholeheartedly. Trying on some different stylistic and conceptual outfits as we go, we’ll use back issues of Fortean Times – as well as poems – as source material, to collide the ‘World of Strange Phenomena’ with our daily lives.

Don’t expect to produce poetry which isn’t personal. Poems in recent collections by poets like Suzannah Evans and Jane Commane have taken on poltergeists, folklore, alternative dimensions and time travel as ways into profoundly personal topics. We’ll crash-land humour into seriousness, taking fuzzy photographs of our experiences alongside imaginings – spark debate about ‘authenticity’.

What’s just beyond our edges? Let’s hop dimensions, muddling established poetic forms and conventions of voice. Let’s doctor our own imagery. Let’s put a tinfoil hat on ‘reality’.


Want to channel poems from phenomena just beyond our understanding? Join Caleb Parkin for Extrasensory Perceptions on May 11 / 12. Book here.

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Image Credits:

Matthew Venn. This image has been cropped and filtered. Licence.