One Friday night, when I was fifteen, I got into a fight. More accurately: I bravely stood-up for a loudmouth friend and then bravely lay in the grass, while five men kicked my head in.
This was nothing unusual for my mid-teens (or indeed my mid-twenties). The only difference being that this time I limped-off not only muddy and bloody but with a fat broken hand.
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, then you may know it’s difficult to write about these moments. If poetry is ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ then most violence, real or imagined, is difficult to write about. There’s plenty of emotion; fear, anger, shame to name but a few. However, the problem with violence is one of ‘recollection’ and ‘tranquillity’.
I say there were five men that Friday night. However, there could have just as easily been four or six (we had not – after all – been formally introduced). In fact, most of what I know about the attack comes in pieced-together accounts from friends (all of whom – at the time – were bravely ‘looking after my coat’).
Unless you are a psychopath or specially trained, any violence you have ever witnessed, received or inflicted has come with the fight or flight response. Being drunk on adrenaline is worse than alcohol for memory loss, as any policeman struggling to corroborate witness statements will tell you. I doubt even the attackers could say with certainty which of them stamped on my hand.
From each experience of violence, there may only ever be one or two clear sense memories we’re left with; the mash of grass under a thrown-out palm and that kindling snap of bone. However, the rest is a strangely blue blur. So how can we accurately recollect these moments? Even if we do fill in the blanks with educated guesswork or out-right imagination, the process is never tranquil — violence not only leaves us with adrenaline-diluted memories but also trauma.
The blue-blurry memory of that Friday night makes me feel just as angry and scared as I must have felt at the time, perhaps even more. How can I (or any of us) recollect with any tranquillity emotions that still seem present? Violence is never truly ‘recollected’ but ‘relived’ – even if the experience is vague. Therefore the process is, of course, not tranquil but chaotic.
This leaks into our writing. Even purely imagined moments of violence can produce vague and chaotic poetry. Harold Pinter never experienced the Iraq war first-hand but, for all his skill as a writer, his war poetry was famously dismissed as ‘big sweary outburst[s]’ in Don Paterson’s 2004 TS Eliot lecture. As Paterson put it ‘anyone can do that’. My question is, when it comes to violence, how can anyone do anything but that? This is the underlying question that my upcoming Shadow of Violence Studio will answer.
For there are many examples of excellent contemporary poetry that centre on or around violence. Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Education for Leisure’; Simon Armitage’s ‘Hitcher’; Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-term Break’. These three poems come to mind as I discovered them in my GCSEs and their precision, control and vivid detail resonated during those violent teenage years. They seemed to me so much more ‘real’ than any blurry-trauma and yet the main instance of violence (from which each of these three narratives germinates) only occurs within one of them, ‘Hitcher’, and even here there is a strange detachment.
A violent poem’s success often depends on this feeling of distance. Poems that do not look directly at the blinding light of the violent moment (as Pinter’s war poems do) but at the surrounding shadows or through a tinted perspective.
Though the Shadow of Violence Studio will focus on many areas a poet can create distance (such as specific narrative, formal and linguistic choices) the main area will be how ‘time’ is employed, as it one of the most common and effective means. We will study poems of ‘build-up’ and ‘aftermath’ and how, although these poems are positioned on opposite sides of a moment of violence, they often move in the same way; increasing their tension with slow and inevitable horror. Yet poems like ‘Hitcher’, poems of the ‘detached moment’, move very differently – sometimes seeming not to move at all, their narratives quite flat with moment after moment presented with no rise or fall. We will even study the tricky but breath-taking ‘all-in-one’ poem, such as Robin Robertson’s Forward Prize-winning ‘At Roane Head’, which builds-up to a detached moment that then leaks away into an aftermath.
By the end of the Studio, students will have engaged with such an array of poems and writing-exercises they will be able to pick, choose and adapt their own techniques of altered time and distance. Each student will have their own answer to the question how do I write a successful violent poem? However, once honed, these techniques can then be applied not just to moments of violence but to writing that approaches any number of difficult life situations: phobia, heartbreak, illness, childbirth, death, and countless other experiences we might find blurry and traumatic.