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  • Writer's pictureMike Gould

Give it time and space

I've been thinking a lot about reflection. So, reflecting about reflecting. Oh god, you're thinking - this sounds just like the sort of woolly abstract tinkering we can do without. Who needs reflection? Haven't we all had our fill of thinking? After a lifetime without the time to think, we have had a lifetime's worth in six months.

But for me I'm trying to turn reflection into an active event when it comes to writing. It's partly to do with Wordsworth. Yes, him - that old Romantic. His well-known definition of poetry resonated when I started to consider a new creative venture. You will know (of course you will) that he defined poetry as: 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.'

It would be easy to focus on the 'spontaneous overflow' bit: the idea that writing poetry is an almost unconscious act, the hands grasping the pen unable to do anything but race across the page showering it with daffodils (or your particular flower of choice).

But let's get back to the new creative venture. It was one of those things spawned from a moment of idleness - reflection even - when a good idea suddenly seems like a brilliant one. Now, I've talked about the danger of 'good ideas' before. They're horrible things, best avoided at all cost, but what can you do when they come calling?

Anyway, this idea was that in my current passion for sea swimming, I would write something every time I went to the beach. I might have a focus - one day sounds, the next day clouds or gulls, or get the picture. And I tried, believe me I tried! Perhaps it was the salt air blurring the paper or the tea from the flask that had soaked the pen, but the account of what I could see was unimpressive. Because in so many ways our beach is unimpressive. It's a shingle one. It has no pretty cove of rocks or sandy dunes to give it relief. It doesn't even curve in a way that would allow me to create an analogy with a shapely form, to slip into metaphors of the sea as a tough mistress. Good thing, you might say.

In the end, I wrote what can be best described as an audit. Gulls - seventeen. Tick! Water: grey/blue with a silvery triangle of sun. Tick! Swimmers: one - me. No, cross that out - I'm here writing. Erase! And so on.

The thing is, Wordsworth had a point. As my wise mate John said - in a sense Wordsworth is not a nature poet for all that we think of him that way. His subject was himself. Not for him John Clare's detailed observation of a mouse's nest or the raw, elemental power of Ted Hughes's 'Moortown'.

My best writing about nature has really been about me - and it's not been done in media res but in recollection when the experience has had time to percolate. So, 'my' beach isn't really very special except insofar as it is my beach - its connection to me personally. So that when I get that kick of salt or the icy spill that banishes inertia, frees me from the shore, it's not in the moment that those things resonate but in what they mean to me when I'm back home, staring at a laptop, at words about to overflow.

I'm about to read 'Radical Wordsworth' by Jonathan Bate - a gift for a birthday. Part of Bate's contention, I believe, is that Wordsworth made us all see the world differently. In my case, it's perhaps not about how I see the world - or at least not trying to understand it as I see it, but in how I have learned to give it time and space. Our image of Wordsworth is perhaps of the old bard, the noble Poet Laureate. But I like to think of him as a young man - plunging into experience, at the same time wise beyond his years, already knowing that any act of memory is a reshaping. Any act of writing as valid as the experience that preceded it.

As he might have said, let the beach and sea work its magic slowly.

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