Five of our best poets reflect on the books that got them started into the world of writing.
The book that got me started . . . anything by Tomas Tranströmer is a perfect place to start when writing poetry. Scandinavian writers are deservedly in vogue but Tranströmer’s images are verities of nature and human life. His images feel like drinking aquavit very fast; your head buzzes and your eyes open wide on something you couldn’t have imagined. Titles such as ‘November with Nuances of Noble Fur’, ‘Brief Pause in the Organ Recital’, ‘The Sad Gondola’ and the lovely last stanza of ‘After Someone’s Death’ . . .
It is still beautiful to feel
your heart throbbing.
But often the shadow feels more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.
(Tomas Tranströmer: The Great Enigma: New and Collected Poems . Translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006)
A book that made a difference for me was the Collected Poems of James K Baxter that my parents gave me as a teenager. Our house wasn’t a house of books so the gift was significant in all sorts of ways. Up until that time the poetry I had read seemed elsewhere – Baxter gave me a physical world that I recognised. Of all his work, Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament created particular excitement. I could hear the work being spoken and felt like I knew something about the voice. The relaxed line, intimacy of tone, movement from image to image and arrival of lyric moments – all seemed effortlessly achieved. I rebelled against Catholicism but during that period was a convert to Baxter.
The year: 1987. The place: Edinburgh (‘Athens of the North', according to David Hume and his Enlightenment buddies; ‘Reykjavik of the South', according to Tom Stoppard). I was browsing through the shelves of a little second-hand bookshop called Tills – a fairly common pastime for me as I made my halting way to the university and that horrible PhD thesis which obstinately refused to get written. I saw a fat Picador paperback with the words 'BLOOD AND GUTS IN HIGH SCHOOL, Plus Two ' on its spine, and opened it up.
My first response was, I suppose, that this was too good to be true. It was full of dream-maps, Persian language lessons, passages of ranting obscenity ... It just had to be second-rate, beneath serious literary notice – and yet, and yet ...
Reader, I bought it. And so began my love affair with the works of the late lamented Kathy Acker, wildest of wild girls, high priestess of post-feminist haut punk. My thesis did get written in the end, but by that stage it didn’t really matter – the virus had entered my blood. I was doomed for life to be a cut-and-paste deconstructionist, cutting my meat from the exposed entrails of a moribund civilisation – with a crazed Gothic prose-style and a bad case of the Black Tarantula blues.
On the morning of my eighth birthday I received a copy of George’s Marvellous Medicine. Not only was this my introduction to the eccentric imagination of Roald Dahl, it was my very own first book, one I could claim as my own. Sure it sat on the bookshelf alongside the books I shared with my brother, but the birthday inscription inside the front cover, 'To Christopher…', was the point of difference. Suddenly I realised books could be a wonderful, personal treasure.
Back then my predilection for completeness was apparent (when I fall for a new band or musician I will seek out every album, b-side, remix and leaked demo) and so over several birthdays and lots of saved-up pocket money my Roald Dahl collection began to grow.
Those books taught me the value of re-reading, that there was a new joy to discover on each subsequent visit to Dahl’s sometimes surreal, often dark, but always charming, story telling. He wrote stories that spoke to the child adventurists in all of us; how I wished to be whisked away by a B.F.G to battle giants or granted a personal tour of a magical chocolate factory.
I get those same familiar feelings when I read them now, but I’m starting to identify a little more with some of the adult characters like Willy Wonky or Henry Sugar – men living in fantastic worlds of their own creation, happy to revel in the magic around us.
Man Alone, first published in that scary year, 1939, has its hero escape a murder charge by fleeing to the Kaimanawas. Offering his reader an insight into the triad terrors of the archaic ‘feminine’, author John Mulgan writes the forest as the ‘devouring’ place of ‘abandonment’ and ‘not enoughness’: The very features that doom all his protagonist Johnson’s relationships with women: And not a few men. A novel of unbearable loneliness revealing as much about the roots of misunderstanding between the sexes as anything I’ve read. Shelve it beside Jean Watson’s 1965 road trip: Stand in the Rain . It’s time they got talking.